Grace Perfected

3 Jun

Hello, again. Breaks happen. Where were we? Oh, yes. The Oscars had just happened when I wrote my last post. I followed my awards coverage with a piece about Joanne Woodward, the beneficiary of Best Supporting Actress winner Allison Janney’s gratitude.

When Grace Kelly won the 1954 Best Actress Oscar for The Country Girl, she didn’t just triumph over Judy Garland for A Star is Born, she also beat Dorothy Dandridge’s historic turn in Carmen Jones, along with previous winners Audrey Hepburn (Sabrina) and Jane Wyman (Magnificent Obsession). Coincidentally, Kelly turned down a strong role in On the Waterfront, the year’s Best Picture winner, in order to continue working with Hitchcock on Rear Window (Humphries 119). That role eventually went to Eva Marie Saint, who won that year’s Best Supporting Actress Oscar. A few years later, Saint would assume what was clearly intended as a Grace Kelly type role in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. (IMAGE: https://people.com/celebrity/top-10-oscar-looks/)

Okay, now back to business. I want to revisit one of the Academy’s most, well, infamous picks. Allegedly. I’m referring to the time when the Academy lavished Best Actress honors on Grace Kelly (The Country Girl), bypassing Judy Garland, whom many believe was the presumed frontrunner, giving her all in the spectacular, big-budget musical reincarnation of venerable Hollywood tearjerker, A Star is Born. The second official, and third unofficial, incarnation–in blazing Technicolor, no less [1]. Dynamo Garland, long a fan favorite, had not made a movie in a few years, following a period of emotional upheavals and a painful dismissal from MGM where she had toiled in one picture after another since her teens. In the interim between her last and most recent film, she re-established herself as a top concert draw. With her luster restored, she and then husband-manager Sid Luft used their new found clout to set-up shop at Warner Bros where they produced, through the auspices of their Transcona Enterprises, what was heralded as a stellar triumph, the comeback of all comebacks: the story of a Hollywood ingénue who rises to the peak of stardom while her husband (in this case, played by James Mason), already well established in the biz, suffers a downward spiral brought on by his own self-destructive tendencies, chiefly alcoholism (Peary 126; Wiley and Bona 246).  The star-studded premiere was, in a TV first, broadcast live–coast to coast with studio honcho Jack Warner famously boasting, “It’s the greatest night in the history of the movies,” to which the Hollywood Reporter‘s  Mike Connolly enthusiastically concurred (qtd. in Wiley and Bona 246).  So far, so good. Furthermore,  as Scott Schechter reports in his book Judy Garland: The Day by Day Chronicle of a Legend (2002), a reviewer for Time proclaimed that with A Star is Born, Garland had effectively nailed “the greatest one-woman show” in all of Hollywood moviedom (qtd 197), but that statement can be read more than one way, meaning it might not be a compliment, considering A Star is Born, or almost any movie, really, is hardly a solo enterprise.

When Garland lost the Oscar, no less than Groucho Marx famously harrumphed that it was the biggest robbery since the Brinks job (qtd in Wiley and Bona 254). Whoa. That’s some kind of heavy-duty robbery, Mr. Marx. To this day, cinephiles, Oscar enthusiasts, and Garland fans still harrumph.

I’m not sure I agree with Marx and the other harrumph-ers. Call me a heretic if you wish, but I actually think the right actress won the Oscar that year.

Backing up a bit, in 1953 Grace Kelly was still a relative acting novice with a smattering of stage, TV, and film credits, including the high profile role of young bride to marked lawman Gary Cooper in 1952’s taut Western drama High Noon (for which Cooper won his second Oscar). Not much of a role, but Kelly proved her mettle and moved on to Mogambo, alongside luminaries Clark Gable and Ava Gardner. Incredibly, Mogambo was actually a remake of Gable’s own Red Dust (1932), in which “the King” shared the screen with Jean Harlow and Mary Astor. Stepping into the role originally played by Astor, Kelly caught the attention of the Academy, earning a Best Supporting Actress nomination–in addition to a Golden Globe. She lost that first Oscar race, btw, to Donna Reed in From Here to Eternity. Fair enough, but Kelly was only getting started.

1954 was the year in which Kelly proved her star wattage. In The Country Girl she held her own against the likes of previous Best Actor winners Bing Crosby and William Holden. In a scenario somewhat similar to that of A Star is Born, Kelly plays the dutiful, deceptively mousey wife of an alcoholic, has-been actor (Crosby) attempting a comeback in a play directed by Holden’s character. The whole enterprise soon becomes a contest of wills for all three leads with Crosby, as is likely for a chronic substance abuser, playing one side (Kelly) against the other (Holden); moreover, The Country Girl was only one of Kelly’s three hit films in 1954 [2]. The remaining two were both directed by the then highly popular “Master of Suspense,” Alfred Hitchcock: first-up was Dial M for Murder, effectively filmed in 3-D, and then came the enduring undeniably classic Rear Window.

The Country Girl garnered a total of 7 Oscar nominations during the 54/55 awards season, including Best Picture, Best Actress (Kelly, natch), and Best Actor (Bing Crosby). George Seaton was nominated for both directing the picture and adapting Clifford Odet’s play. Seaton won for his screenplay while Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront took Best Picture and Best Director honors. For context, consider that the same year Crosby played against type in The Country Girl (and lost to Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront), he also enjoyed  what used to be known as boffo box-office in the now holiday perennial White Christmas (a revamp of his own Holiday Inn), which duked it out for top box-office status with Rear Window and 20,000 Leagues under the Sea  (starring no less than James Mason). Finally, William Holden famously plugged The Country Girl when he guest-starred on a memorable episode of I Love Lucy. (IMAGE: https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/115897390388276376/)

Those in the pro-Judy/Anti-Grace contingent regarding the 1954 Oscars  often carp that Kelly won not so much for acting, per se, but for, again, playing against type, going mousey, playing down her glam looks in favor of a drab hair do, shapeless sweaters, and little or no makeup. Sometimes wearing less than flattering glasses; sometimes not (Matthews 189; Peary 126) [3]. All in Black and White, btw. Throw in a calculated emotional outburst or two, a few tears, and Kelly wins an Oscar, right?  I don’t think so. That’s almost too easy, and it ignores the powerful dynamics at play in The Country Girl, which, per this viewer (and keep in mind, I grew up around addiction), includes possibly the truest portrait of a substance abuser I can recall. Crosby, in an Oscar nominated turn (same as Mr. Mason in the Garland film) is eerily convincing as someone who uses passive-aggression to serve his own interests. In his own way, Crosby is so good that he’s downright ghastly. And Kelly has to keep up with that. I tend to think of Kelly in The Country Girl (which I first saw on TV, maybe PBS, back in the early 90s), in the same way I think of Helen Hunt and her Oscar winning turn in 1997’s As Good as it Gets, opposite hammy Jack Nicholson. Basically, the success of both actresses is that they give as good as they get, so to speak, in the presence of co-stars who might have easily devoured them.

Again, The Country Girl is only part of the story as Kelly worked in back-to-back productions for Hitchcock. In Dial M for Murder, she portrayed a woman on trial for a crime that both she and the audience know was self-defense. What she and the authorities don’t know is that her attacker was hired by Kelly’s jealous, fortune seeking husband, but his plans for a so-called “perfect murder” go horribly wrong. A frame-up seems the next best thing. In Rear Window, she scored as James Stewart’s fashionable steady turned would-be sleuth. As with Dial M for Murder, Rear Window was an instant hit that thrilled audiences and took its place as one of the year’s top box office earners. As well, please note that in the weeks and months leading up to the Oscars, Kelly nabbed honors for all three films (The Country Girl and the two Hitchcock offerings) from both the National Board of Review as well as the New York Film Critics Circle. Furthermore, Kelly also claimed a Golden Globe–for Best Actress in a Drama. With that in mind, please remember that the Academy–whether explicitly stated–aims to honor achievement when handing out its annual awards, and Kelly provided that opportunity, all wrapped in quite a pretty package.

Back to Garland. While reviews for her performance in A Star is Born brimmed with praise galore, and she also nabbed the Globe in her category, the project while stunning in many regards serves more as a personal triumph for its star rather than as an across-the-board achievement.  Consider that the film’s production was fraught with delays and cost overruns, partially due to interference from Warner execs but an echo, as well, of Garland’s MGM travails (Eastman 325; Matthews 813). Such woes don’t escape the Hollywood grapevine, rest assured. Next, the finished film originally ran a hefty three hours, presenting a marketing challenge. Sure there are always exceptions, most notably at that time Gone with the Wind (clocking in at close to 4 hours), but movies with lengthy running times can only be shown easily 2-3 times a day rather than 5-6, especially in single screen theatres–the norm in the 1950s. Still, Hollywood has always been an industry town, and as is so often the case with many businesses, all is mostly forgiven if and when the coffers fill.  Therein lies the problem with A Star is Born. Simply, the film was hardly a roaring success at the box office. As oft reported, the story goes something like this. When the returns failed to match all sky-high expectations, the first move was to re-edit the film to a more manageable length though that only made the movie shorter without necessarily improving its performance. The effects of all this Scissorhands-ing, if you buy into the myth, is that given the film’s disappointing performance Warner nixed the idea of sinking money, that is, more money, into an Oscar campaign. Furthermore, the frequent charge is that those Academy members who bothered paying any attention to A Star is Born made their judgment based on the re-edited version, with as many as 30 minutes worth of Garland’s best scenes scrapped, abandoned on the cutting room floor; thus, the race is thrown in Kelly’s favor (Peary 126-127).

If one buys the myth.

Therein lies the problem. 30 minutes more of Garland would have only made her movie longer–as Ronald Haver’s famously cobbled together restoration (dating back to 1983) attests. Here is where the whole proposition gets tricky. I do not want to go so far as to suggest that Garland merely plays herself in A Star is Born. No, I believe she is fully invested, fully believable each and every second, and that she hits all the right notes, emotionally, that is, but the concern is that Garland is doing nothing in A Star is Born that she hasn’t–hadn’t–already done in her previous films. The difference is that she does so on a much grander scale For example, is Garland in drag as a tattered newsboy singing “Lose that Long Face” such a big stretch from her and Fred Astaire’s “A Couple of Swells” hobo routine in Easter Parade?  For all Garland’s big powerful moments, of which A Star is Born–at any length–is jam-packed, the performance isn’t as shaped, as nuanced, as her splendid turn in The Wizard of Oz, in which the audience falls in love with her Dorothy without being beaten over the head with cues about how worthy she is of being loved.  Again, Garland is always well-worth watching, but the shortcomings, the limitations, of her performance might be forgiven if, well, if A Star is Born were a better–more balanced–picture, but it is too singularly conceived as a testament to Garland’s gosh-darn, misty-eyed exuberance as a performer, per the overblown “Born in a Trunk” number (directed by choreographer Richard Barstow, as sources indicate, well after director George Cukor wrapped production [4]) rather than as a love story equally weighted between its two leads but as has often been noted, the material is weighted such that the audience is cued to react to Garland’s suffering as she watches helplessly while Mason unravels. In other words, the emphasis is on how she suffers because of him rather than how his demons affect him and how he suffers accordingly (Kael 240-241) [5]. Garland ripping into “The Man Who Got Away” is magic. If only the film had ended there. Garland enacting a scene in which her character wins an Oscar, only to be humiliated in the process by Mason, is overkill. Since she played a role in developing the project, she shoulders some responsibility for a nagging sense of self-indulgence. [To clarify, yes, “Lose that Long Face” was one of the items cut in the re-edit, but even in the shortened version Garland is still seen having a moment in the tattered newsboy garb, and it still registers as familiar, per the earlier bit with Astaire in Easter Parade.]

Back to Kelly. No, her performance in The Country Girl, isn’t as big and colorful–literally–as Garland’s, but does it represent a more significant achievement, all things considered? How about this? How about that Kelly’s achievement is the triumph of versatility in a year of one success after the next? Remember: two high profile organizations honored her for work in multiple films. Furthermore, per Tom O’Neil, in its final week Variety‘s straw poll clearly favored Kelly over Garland (174). And The Country Girl, tellingly, was a Best Picture contender. Okay, but maybe you believe it shouldn’t work that way? That the award should go to the nominated performance, per se, rather than special consideration for “body of work” stuff. Okay, so let me amend my original claim by specifying that the right actress won the 1954 Oscar, but for the wrong film.

If Kelly had won for Rear Window, I don’t think we’d even be talking about any of this anymore. As a friend of mine recently noted, Grace Kelly achieves perfection in Rear Window. How so? Without actually playing a movie star, she gets to be both a star and a consummate actress. That’s quite a feat. Hitchcock became so enamored of Kelly during production of Dial M for Murder, that he decided to feature her prominently in his follow-up, based on the story “It had to be Murder” by Cornell Woolrich (writing under the pseudonym “William Irish”). As the scenario unfolds, a temporarily laid-up photographer (James Stewart) becomes suspicious of activity he spies in the apartment across the courtyard from his own. Kelly, in a role created especially for the film, plays his glamorous, devoted, and socially well-connected girlfriend.  She’s head over heels, but Stewart has doubts. His occupation as a globe trotting photojournalist dictates that his assignments often come without much warning and require him to live by his wits under extreme conditions in far-flung locales for weeks and months at a time. He can’t imagine that Kelly’s elegant “Lisa Freemont” could keep up with his demanding lifestyle. To Jeffries, Lisa is far too preoccupied with her career in fashion and hobnobbing with newspaper columnists and assorted Manhattan swells, but Lisa is made of sterner, and far more adventurous, stuff than her cool exterior suggests.

Grace Kelly makes her stunning Rear Window entrance in this much adored Edith Head creation, a frock that has been copied endlessly for proms and even weddings. Google it. Head designed exactly six costumes for Kelly in Rear Window, including a much more understated little black dress,  a sophisticated suit, a floral print, and, most scandalously, a cream colored gown and negligee set which Kelly’s Freemont brings with her for an overnight stay in Jefferies’ apartment. Quite a forward move for a young woman in 1954. The Academy was not inclined to nominate Head for her work in this particular film though she rebounded for her even more fabulous contributions to Hitchcock’s next offering, also starring Kelly, To Catch a Thief–though she lost that race (to Charles LeMaire of Love is a Many Splendored Thing) and remained sore about it for a good long while. (IMAGE: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/af/Grace_Kelly_Promotional_Photograph_Rear_Window.jpg)

In his directive to Rear Window costumer Edith Head, Hitchcock stressed that Kelly should be presented as though she were a fine piece of Dresden china (qtd. in Humphries 120; McGilligan 488). But that’s a bit of an illusion. Yes, Kelly makes one heck of a stunning entrance in Rear Window, outfitted in black and white, cinched at the waist, dripping with black beaded vines atop layers and layers of  white chiffon and tulle. And , yes, Hitchcock frames her in ravishing close-up, replete with silken blonde hair, irresistible gaze, and ruby lips. Let the fun begin. Over the course of the film, however, Lisa demonstrates that she is much more than a delicate fixture as she matches wits with Stewart’s “L.B. Jefferies,” his detective friend (Wendell Corey), a police squad, and, yes, a cold-blooded murderer (Raymond Burr).  She scales the courtyard and places herself in danger in order to retrieve evidence that will convince the police that a crime has indeed occurred when the initial investigation proves inconclusive.

Stewart’s character may very well serve as the audience surrogate in Rear Window as we see the story unspool from his perspective–but make no mistake, it is Kelly who asserts herself as the story’s dynamic hero. Interestingly, even with all the changes the audience sees in Lisa as the story progresses, she never loses her identity. She is still Lisa. She has not reinvented herself to accommodate Jeffries or to prove a point.  That remains incidental. Instead, she shows herself to be more resourceful, more complex, than her seemingly more seasoned boyfriend could ever imagine. And he digs it, but Lisa remains her own woman, not a fixture. Again, Kelly manages to be both actress and movie star.

Of course, no one thinks of big emotionally demonstrative speechifying scenes in a Hitchcock film. Certainly not, so Kelly’s role in Rear Window, in all its vibrancy, pales next to the histrionics of The Country Girl, but that’s what also makes Rear Window a richer experience.  Consider that though Hitchcock periodically shifts the camera to visually eavesdrop on the activities of those who live in proximity to Stewart’s digs, much of the verbal exchanges are solely between Stewart and Kelly–and, again, all within the confines of Stewart’s relatively cramped living space. The spotlight, so to speak, is squarely on the two leads, and they have to be on-point. This is where Kelly most impresses, not in her ability to spar with Stewart, though there’s plenty of that–and it’s exciting–but in the way she seems genuinely invested in listening, in reacting. Moreover, in its talkiness Rear Window asks an audience to listen attentively through a number of shifts in tone. One minute Kelly and Stewart are hurling quips and accusations in a battle of the sexes; then, they’re almost ghoulish players in a macabre comedy of manners, that is, before the talk becomes philosophical and Kelly admonishes the both of them for being disappointed that the man they’ve been spying on might NOT have committed a crime, to which she adds that she’s certainly not an expert on “rear window ethics.” This is the challenge for viewers. Of course, that’s Hitchcock’s genius though the two leads so fully inhabit their roles that audiences are willing to follow. Think about it, a movie designed with the inherent limitations of a self-contained world (an apartment and only that which can be seen beyond the back window) featuring a key performance by a glamorous movie star that doesn’t “read” as a performance but as a progression. Now that’s an achievement.

Thanks for your consideration.

 

Rear Window, along with Vertigo, and Rope, was among 5 Hitchock titles re-released to theatres between 1983 and 1984. It has since been the subject of an intensive restoration, and subsequently re-released (circa 1999). Since then, it has been revived in TMC’s Big Screen Classics series. I see it in theatres every chance I get, and even played it during my theatre days. In 1954 the Academy saw fit to nominate Alfred Hitchcock for directing the modern suspense classic, along with screenwriter John Michael Hayes, and sound engineer Loreen L. Ryder. Who can account for the Academy overlooking it as a Best Picture candidate, especially given the inclusion of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Three Coins in a Fountain, both lightweight enterprises compared to such heavy contenders as On the Waterfront and The Caine Mutiny. Also jarring is the Academy’s neglect of A-1 character actress Thelma Ritter in the role of Stewart’s health insurance nurse who drops in daily to check up on her patient and also gets caught up in the ensuing mystery. For my money, Ritter has simply never been better than she is as no-nonsense Stella, which is a huge statement given that she was a 6-time Best Supporting Actress nominee who, alas, never won–an unfortunate Academy record of sorts. More puzzling is the Academy’s failure to recognize the stunning design work by the team of Joseph MacMillan Johnson and Hal Pereria (Art Direction) along with Sam Comer and Ray Moyer (Set Decoration). Together, these guys created a multi level set on a Paramount soundstage that allows viewers to peak into multiple, seemingly fully-functional, apartments, around a central courtyard all from Jimmy Stewart’s perspective. Kudos are warranted, likewise, to cinematographer Robert Burks. In my next piece, I propose to write about another fabulous entry, also slighted by the Academy, by two members of the Rear Window design team.

 

[1] The highly lauded 1937 original, starring Oscar nominees Fredric March and Janet Gaynor, with a screenplay co-written by Alan Campbell and Dorothy Parker (and award worthy Technicolor cinematography), owes a great deal to 1932’s What Price Hollywood, starring Constance Bennett and Lowell Sherman. The common link between those two films is producer David O. Selznick; meanwhile, George Cukor of What Price Hollywood? was hired to direct the Garland version in 1954.  Furthermore, in the 1970s no less than Barbra Streisand co-produced a rock-n-roll themed update with her then s.o., Jon Peters–and won an Oscar not for acting but for for co-composing the movie’s love theme (“Evergreen”) along with Paul Williams.

[2] Technically, Kelly starred in a 4th pic that year, Green Fire, opposite Stewart Granger, a flick that made almost no impact and may have very well been a contractual obligation for the actress in exchange for high profile loan-outs.

[3] I take tremendous exception to Charles Matthews’ claim that Kelly’s Oscar for The Country Girl came essentially for the effort that went into the performance rather than the “real acting” exhibited by Garland in her film (189). Yeah, I get it. The effort is definitely on display in Kelly’s offering, but what I see is that Kelly’s effort is in service of a character far removed from her poised persona and that is surely worth as much as Garland’s go-for-broke comeback vehicle.

[4] The film-buff world is apparently divided into two camps: those who marvel at “Born in a Trunk,” and those, such as me, who find it distracting. While thrilling in its use of color, design, and wide-screen camera setups, not to mention Garland’s raw talent, it runs far too long and disrupts the narrative flow. Plus, as noted in multiple sources, it contributed to the film’s already bloated budget though it might have seemed like a good idea at the time given the era’s preoccupation with filling movie screens with spectacle in order to lure audiences away from their television sets; plus, similarly conceived production numbers, such as the one in 1951’s Best Picture winner An American in Paris, had achieved the desired effect by most accounts.

[5] Kael’s complaint is directed at both Garland’s ’54 incarnation and Barbra Streisand’s “rock musical” take, opposite Kris Kristofferson, in 1976, widely panned but hugely popular nonetheless. This prompts further exploration, if not criticism, in that the title is A Star is Born, but both Garland and Streisand were already well-established not as mere talents but mega-talents, with devoted followings, so where is the joy of discovery, the element  of awe, for audiences in seeing that talent uncovered and nurtured before taking its rightful place in the spotlight? Especially, that is, when Streisand, like Garland, had an active role in developing her project?

 

Works Cited

Eastman, John. Retakes: Behind the Scenes of 500 Classic Movies. Ballantine, 1989.

Humphries, Patrick. The Films of Alfred Hitchcock. Portland House, 1986.

Kael, Pauline. When the Lights Go Down. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1980. 240-241. Print.

Matthews, Charles. Oscar A to Z: A Complete Guide to More than 2,400 Movies Nominated for Academy Awards. Main Street Books, 1995.

McGilligan, Patrick. Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light. Dey St., 2003. 2004.

O’Neil, Tom. Movie Awards: The Ultimate, Unofficial Guide to the Oscars, Golden Globes, Critics, Guild & Indie Honors. Foreword by Peter Bart.      Perigee Books, 2001.

Peary, Danny. Alternate Oscars: One Critic’s Choice for Best Picture, Actor, and Actress–from 1927 to the Present. Delta, 1993.

Schechter. Scott. Judy Garland: The Day by Day Chronicle of a Legend. 2002. Taylor Trade Publishing, 2006.  http://Web.https://books.google.com/books?id=GMtT0rOMyS4C&pg=PA197&lpg=PA197&dq=the+greatest+one+woman+show+in+the+history+of+movies+AND+Judy+Garland+AND+A+star+is+born&source=bl&ots=Ch8kZeyM-6&sig=XSvT3s11LOtmj1mZlWbkdOi5UzE&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjamqrt173bAhWhyoMKHZ6vDcg4ChDoAQhFMAc#v=onepage&q=the%20greatest%20one%20woman%20show%20in%20the%20history%20of%20movies%20AND%20Judy%20Garland%20AND%20A%20star%20is%20born&f=false

Wiley, Mason and Damien Bona. Inside Oscar: The Unofficial History of the Academy Awards, 10th Anniversary Edition. Ballantine, 1996.

Also, see Frank Miller’s notes on A Star is Born at the TCM website:

http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/12836/A-Star-Is-Born/articles.html

 

 

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2 Responses to “Grace Perfected”

  1. Dale 04 June 2018 at 5:03 pm #

    Exceptional Entry, Melanie !! But I confess I have not seen “The Country Girl” !! Crosby is a problematic personality, I look forward to finally seeing it.

    • listen2uraunt 05 June 2018 at 7:00 pm #

      Dale, thanks so much. I worked long and hard on this. I knew when I began this blog 7 years ago, I would write a piece on this particular topic. This article took over a month, but I feel like I got everything on the page that I’d long intended. Thanks so much for your continued interest. I always appreciate your feedback.

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