Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Shirley Booth in "Come Back, Little Sheba", 1952 Oscar-Winner

This is not a review.  It's not even a true analysis.  It is a the work of one actress in a performance from 1952 has meaning for one viewer in 2011.

As part of  it's annual "31 Days of Oscar", Turner Classic Movies screened the domestic drama "Come Back, Little Sheba".

Shirley Booth...Wow.  Her performance here is essential viewing to anyone who cares about great movie acting, and who appreciates those times when Oscar got it completely, marvelously right.

Booth reprises the role of Lola, the disheveled and unhappy wife of an alcoholic, a performance that also won her a Tony award. This was Booth's first film, and, at age 54, was the oldest person to date to win the Oscar for Best Actress.  (So unforgettable was her portrayal, that she was also honored by the Golden Globes, New York Film Critics, National Board of Review, and the Cannes Film Festival.)

Lola--"pretty Lola" as she was known before life diminished her--pines for her lost dog Sheba, and yearns to return to happier days with her husband "Doc" (or "Daddy" as she affectionately calls him).  Booth successfully paints a portrait of a desperately lonely woman who is unaware of how unhappy she is.  She smilingly, tentatively, tries to connect with anyone around her--anyone who will listen.  Her neighbors..her mailman...the college girl who rents a room in her home as the film begins.

See how Booth carries her arms, her hands...bent askew, her thumb smoothing her dress, as though she instinctively must protect herself from blows...physical ones, or the more painful, verbal ones she endures from her disappointed, resentful husband in a drunken rage at the film's climax.

Booth learned how to temper her expressions for the intimacy of the camera.  Watch her struggle to maintain a loving and "normal" countenance, a look of naive contentment. Notice how she unwittingly opens her husband's old psychological wounds, forcing him to recall painful memories of giving up his dreams, reminding him of his alcoholism and his year in AA, destroying his coping mechanisms even though she means to encourage him,  probing him with an innocently pleading expression.  Notice the panic register on her face as she realizes that Doc is in trouble again.

Her tears of worry and regret are sincere, real.  Her resolve to improve herself and her life with Doc are heartbreaking.  Her dreams, in which she finds the lifeless body of her little white dog Sheba, and not being able to tend to the animal because she is told she must "move on",  hit me deeply...

I knew instinctively that the image of the lost dog represented a lifetime of missed opportunities. Even as a literal plot point, it moved me so much....I identified with it profoundly.

Abandoned even by her own mother, to whom she finally admits on the phone how unhappy she is, she tearfully promises Doc that she will never leave him because he is all she has.  The many levels of meaning are communicated by her halting delivery, and a look of resignation--or is it hope?  We want to comfort this woman.

And here's where it gets real personal...

Except for the accent, Lola, as embodied by Shirley Booth, a woman so worn down by life that she can't face getting dressed, so desperate for human connection that she reaches out inappropriately and says too much, is a touching reflection of someone I actually uncanny representation of someone whom I have known since the day I was born. 

And Lola's characteristics, concentrated in Shirley Booth's potent and very moving performance, helps me appreciate and strengthen my emotional connection to this person, her "well-meaningness" and simple carelessness, her attachment to a past that was kind to her, and her emptiness because of the things she lost: almost all of her loved ones, a lifetime's worth of "Little Shebas", and, most of all, her youth.

I think true art is a thing of beauty that can help one come to terms with life's unanswerable questions.  Shirley Booth's Lola to me is cinematic art.


  1. I missed most of this (had to do those dishes), but I liked a lot of what I saw. I'm a fan of Lancaster already, and I found the play of the college students interesting. The last thing I saw was Shirley Booth watching them dance in the parlor... I'll have to find it, and finish it, especially after your write-up. I want to witness that journey, too. Fantastic piece here.

  2. I shall have to look for this. Thanks!

  3. Thank you, Walter and Eric, for reading this piece. It came from a place deep inside, and it just poured out after I viewed the film. Do try to see "Come Back Little Sheba". Look past the '50's fimic conventions, and focus on will not soon forget her.

  4. TomS, thanks for your insightful and touching reflections on "Come Back Little Sheba". It was very moving to read of what Shirley Booth's performance means to you personally, evoking a certain person in your life. I just watched "Sheba" for the first time in many years, and found it almost too painful to watch. Beautiful work by Lancaster, Booth, Inge. If I may recommend a book to you, the portrait of a woman - just as heartbreaking as Booth's, but in memoir form and written by the son - I speak of Edward Dahlberg's "Because I Was Flesh". Thank you again TomS.

  5. Pablo,
    Thank you for the kind comments.. Nice to find a kindred soul who loves ths film, which always touches me deeply. I will certainly look for the Edward Dahlberg book you recommended!

  6. My very favorite movie of a William Inge play. Shirley Booth gives the performance of a lifetime. If you only know her as Hazel, you will be blown away. She says "let's have some music" about 4 times throughout the movie. Watch when she tunes to a radio program called "Tabu". Her entire character changes before your eyes. At 54 years of age in real life, she plays a woman no older than 40, but looks much older due to the life she has had to live. Little Sheba is an allegory for loss. The loss of youth, innocence, family, a child and chances. Funny, but I never noticed that Burt calls her Lola a few times throughout the movie. When he asks for "pretty Lola" at the end, I'm shocked that so provocative and sexy a name could be hers. She doesn't look like a Lola by any stretch of the imagination. The character Marie is both a substitute daughter and, for Lola, herself in her youth and for Doc she is daughter/lover. He inappropriately wants to protect her and have a sexual relationship with her at the same time. The performances are all great, but Shirley's is the best. Find a movie called "About Mrs. Leslie".

  7. I just watched this amazing movie by chance. It simply moved me to tears at the end.