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Facts and Truth: Best Best Supporting Actress and Actor, Part II

4 Jun

I’m back. Again. A death in the family and another one of life’s little inconveniences delayed the final draft of this piece. Thanks for reading.

Several years ago, a man I dearly respected (now deceased) proclaimed, confidently, that “Facts are the enemy of truth.”  Let that settle for a moment. Facts are the enemy of truth. Facts may be indisputable, sure enough, but they might not illuminate the “whole truth.”  How does that work? Well, here’s how it might work. For instance, the truth is that The Wizard of Oz is one of the most beloved movies of all time. Over several decades, its characters, music, imagery, and much of its dialogue have profoundly permeated our collective consciousness as relatively few films ever have; however, the fact is that upon its original 1939 release, The Wizard of Oz did not rack up big box office dollars, nor did critics lavish unanimous praise. Oh sure, it sold lots of tickets, hardly a total dud, but MGM, the studio that produced the film, struggled to recoup its investment–at least in its original run. One theory is that the film generated far more reduced-rate tickets for children than standard adult admissions, and that partially explains the shortfall (Harmetz 288). But that almost seems too pat as many other kiddie films have raked up big bucks both before and since. Of course, bookkeeping in Hollywood has always been a bit of a magic act, so it’s hard to know what to trust. Ask any participant who’s ever been promised a cut of the profits; likewise, while the movie was not universally panned, many reviewers carped over one thing or another, mostly, it seems, in reaction to changes made to author L. Frank Baum’s original text. Other critics balked at the vaudevillian spin offered by actors Ray Bolger, Jack Hayley, and Bert Lahr (former vaudevillians, all) in the key roles of the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodsman, and the Cowardly Lion, respectively; after all, as Aljean Hamertz notes, vaudeville was dead by 1939 (23), so what was the point? Those old enough to remember its demise no doubt scratched their head in confusion.

Still again, another set of facts arise to challenge, if not refute, the previous set. For example, in spite of its wobbly reception, The Wizard of Oz still scored a handful of Oscar nominations in that season’s awards derby, including, please note, Best Picture. Additionally, the film snagged at least one trophy from Gone with the Wind, the year’s reigning champ (that would be Best Score, officially credited to Herbert Stothart, btw) and garnered two other wins, both of them beyond reproach because, here we go, the truth is that we can scarcely imagine The Wizard of Oz without lead actress Judy Garland or without her immortal rendition of “Somewhere over the Rainbow” (by E.Y. “Yip” Harburg and Harold Arlen).  For the ages, that, and the fact is that Garland snagged an honorary statuette (miniature, alas) for her outstanding “juvenile” performance, and her signature song (a song that ignited rounds of debate among studio personnel regarding its inclusion in the final print–after being excised temporarily) claimed Best Song honors. That the Academy awarded Garland an Oscar as a special achievement when no such accolade was required indicates that the film’s impact–regardless of what we presume are the facts–was considerable.

Garland never won a competitive Oscar. Indeed, in her entire career, and outside her honorary trophy for Oz, she was only nominated twice: Best Actress for 1954’s rousing remake of the well-worn Hollywood weepie A Star is Born, for which she famously lost (to Grace Kelly in The Country Girl) while still hospitalized after giving birth to son Joey Luft, and Best Supporting Actress for 1961’s star-studded Judgment at Nuremberg. West Side Story‘s Rita Moreno took the gold in that round. That’s all. Garland possibly deserved a little something for Meet Me in St. Louis when she was in the full bloom of her MGM stardom, but I digress. Back to Oz. Her performance ranks among the most memorable, most vivid, in all of cinematic history. Sure, intellectually we all know by now that she was 16 at the time the movie went into production and that, how to put this delicately, she was cinched and bound in order to suggest a more childlike, less womanly, profile. But even knowing that doesn’t destroy the illusion. For not one moment in the entire picture is she ever less than fully believable as the little girl lost from barren, sepia-tinted Kansas. We believe how caught up in the moment she is when Miss Gulch demands possession of Toto, the torrent of emotion in that single instant. Plus, later in the film when she cries out to Auntie Em via the crystal ball, and exclaims how frightened she is, we believe that too. We also believe, more than almost anything in the whole dang movie, just how much that girl loves her little dog.

The fact is that Victor Fleming, a rugged man’s man of a director, earned sole credit for his efforts on two of 1939’s most prestigious films: The Wizard of Oz, of course,  and the box office behemoth Gone with the Wind; however, the truth is that Fleming did not direct either picture in its entirety. For example, those sepia-tinted scenes that open The Wizard of Oz were actually shot after the Technicolor sequences that occupy the bulk of the film. By that time, Fleming was off, so to speak, to assume his duties on GWTW, and no less than King Vidor (The Big Parade, The Crowd, The Champ, and Stella Dallas) was assigned by MGM brass to wrap the production, albeit without recognition. It was Vidor, then, who can take credit for the impeccable staging of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” (Harmetz 164-165). Additionally, another director, Richard Thorpe had been hired before Fleming, but producer Mervyn Leroy found Thorpe’s work unsatisfying, so Leroy summoned George Cukor (Dinner at Eight, and Little Women) to help repair the damage–including scrapping all of Thorpe’s footage–before Fleming was fully locked into place (Harmetz 140-142). Interestingly, Cukor would segue to Gone with the Wind before being replaced by Fleming, but I digress. At any rate, Cukor’s lasting contribution, in his unofficial capacity, was fine-tuning the character of Dorothy–and shaping Garland’s performance. Apparently, in the Thorpe scenes, Garland sported a blonde wig and full makeup. Cukor pared back the look and reminded Garland not to forget that she was playing a child, a simple farm girl (Harmetz 143).

The cover of the Electric Light Orchestra’s Eldorado album, released more than 30 years after The Wizard of Oz, reveals one remarkable truth: without a face in sight, many of us recognize this image from The Wizard of Oz even if we don’t understand its relationship to ELO. Yes, I own a copy.

Cukor’s advice, and Garland’s adherence to it, is one of the reasons the performance is so successful. But there is another reason, something not often examined with the same affection or admiration as we carry for Garland. And that is, Garland’s performance is as successful as it is on some level because of the other members of the cast, specifically Margaret Hamilton and Ray Bolger, arguably the Best Best Supporting Actress and Actor to be overlooked by the Academy.

Given all we know about The Wizard of Oz’s reception back in the day, maybe it seems unsurprising that, again according to Hamertz, that a number of reviews at the time scarcely mentioned Margaret Hamilton’s performance…incredible as that might seem to generations of audiences since then who have curdled in fear of her wickedness (Harmetz 297). Sure, for example, Hamilton’s Wicked Witch of the West placed a righteous 4th place on the American Film Institute’s 2003 retrospective of moviedom’s scariest villains, impressively behind only Hannibal Lecter (Silence of the Lambs),  Norman Bates (Psycho), and Darth Vader (Star Wars), but I wonder if we ever fully acknowledge Ms. Hamilton, the venerable character actress, or do we simply take her performance for granted. I think she and the character are so melded in our collective consciousness that we forget that Hamilton was, in fact, a working actress doing the best she could [1]—as the second choice when first choice Gayle Sondergaard bailed–in a project that was one of many in production at the time on the MGM lot.

It might seem foolish to claim that anything about Oz was considered routine as the production posed one technical challenge after another and certainly cost the studio a great deal, but while everyone involved gave the project his or her all, no one expected it to become a timeless classic.

Back to Hamilton. Here are some points to consider. First, can you believe that she only has 12 minutes of screen time, per Harmetz (296)? Yet, her all-encompassing malevolence haunts us. We absolutely buy into Dorothy’s sense of terror because we absolutely buy into the witch’s every hateful word and deed, and that is a testament to Hamilton’s enormous skills as an actor; moreover, if you need a further reminder of, again, just how skilled Hamilton is, remember that she gives not one but two performances in The Wizard of Oz. In the early Kansas sequence, of course, she plays Almira Gulch, officious, small-town fuddy-duddy who uses her social and business connections to take possession of Dorothy’s devoted doggie, Toto, thereby setting most of Act I into action. The transformation from Miss Gulch into the Wicked Witch of the West is far from cosmetic. Everything about Miss Gulch is uptight, clipped, no-nonsense. Dry.  She moves and speaks with crisp efficiency and is obviously humor-impaired. Hamilton’s witch, on the other hand, is fluid and pulsating. She growls, cackles, and shrieks while her body language is anything but stiff. She bends, stretches, and acts all the way to her trippy, elongated fingertips. And she revels in her own badass-ness. Miss Gulch, understand, hides behind the law because she can. Two distinctly different characterizations, courtesy of one resourceful performer. In contrast, remember that the Kansas farmhands played by Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, and Bert Lahr essentially preview the characters of the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion they respectively portray during the remainder of then film. Their Oz inhabitants are “bigger” but not necessarily distinct from their Kansas counterparts. Hamilton is the only one whose portrayals are decidedly and magnificently tonally different.

Bolger also makes a fascinating case. The actor was well-established on Broadway before he came to the movies, and while he did well enough in pictures, besides Oz his finest work was arguably onstage. For example, he won a Tony for the long-running Where’s Charley? How good is he in The Wizard of Oz? Good enough to make it hard to imagine anyone else in the role, but that is almost exactly what happened. For example, the well-known fact is that no less than Buddy Ebsen was originally cast as the Tin Man but suffered a near fatal allergic reaction to the aluminum dust originally created for the character’s makeup,  thereby opening the way for Hayley, but the truth is that Ebsen, an established hoofer, was actually the first choice to play the Scarecrow (Harmetz 118). Bolger was first approached to play the Tin Man (Harmetz 112) though who among us can believe that the remarkably agile, loose limbed Bolger could have ever been the first pick to perform in a stultifying tin can? Thankfully, wiser-heads prevailed, and Bolger was cast in the part for which he heavily campaigned.

Backing up just a bit, no less than Margaret Hamilton believes that Jack Haley never got the acclaim he deserved as the Tin Man due to the fact that he had to find a way to act and to convey his lovelorn character’s predicament in spite of the constraints brought on by unforgiving costume and makeup (Harmetz 176). I see her point, but I still think Bolger’s performance rates the more vivid accomplishment, and for two specific reasons. First, the miracle of Bolger in The Wizard of Oz is that he makes the sheer physicality of the whole thing, literally playing a character without a spine, seem so gosh darn effortless when it had to be anything but. The audience doesn’t see the work. Instead, just as is true for Hamilton, by now we all just see the Scarecrow–and not the skilled actor who makes it happen. Keep in mind that he also had to create his character with an unforgiving rubber bag glued to his face, restricting his ability to sweat, something akin to suffocation given the soundstage’s hot lights, as Harmetz relays (169.) Furthermore, when Dorothy confesses that she will miss the Scarecrow most of all, we naturally believe her, we’re touched, moved, what have you, because Bolger has convinced us  of his character’s fierce devotion in every instant of his character’s screentime; likewise, we understand much sooner than the Scarecrow does that he already has all the smarts he needs.  Bravo.

Years after the fact, Bolger seemed to understand, perhaps better than Haley or Lahr ever did, his role as a goodwill ambassador for the film, content that he would forever be identified as the Scarecrow, long after the luster of his other accomplishments had faded, preferring to focus on the positive aspects of being part of film history and, in true Scarecrow fashion, functioning as a guardian for the memory of Judy Garland. He died, btw, in 1987 at the age of 83.

^ Hard to imagine, isn’t it, that anyone at MGM could have looked at this clip of Ray Bolger from The Great Ziegfeld, 1936’s Best Picture winner, and exclaimed, “Let’s put him in a clunky tin costume that will completely restrict his movement!”

So, that’s my two cents, a little tribute to the greatest pair of supporting performances overlooked by the Academy.  This is not to sleight the talents of Hattie McDaniel and Thomas Mitchell, 1939’s actual Best Supporting Actress and Actor winners, and their contributions to Gone with the Wind and Stagecoach, respectively. McDaniel made history as the first African-American to win an Oscar, and the truth is her contribution to GWTW’s success cannot be underestimated even though the mere fact of that fabled film becomes progressively harder to reconcile with each and every passing year; likewise, the fact is that Thomas Mitchell officially won his Oscar for Stagecoach, but the truth is his performances in other notable 1939 releases, including Gone with the Wind (as Scarlet O’Hara’s downtrodden dad) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (another Best Picture contender) were probably key to his victory.

My goal is not to rewrite or to second guess Academy history, but to pay sincere tribute to a pair of performances that endure, legendarily so, without Oscar approval, specifically two purely supporting performances that work by effectively enhancing audiences’ appreciation of the film’s leading player. In this case, the truth supersedes the facts as recorded by Academy historians, and moviegoers benefit in a way that none of the principal players in the magical tale could have ever imagined.

Thanks for your consideration.

 

[1] –  Hamilton, mid to late 30s at the time, was divorced and raising a son on her own. She learned how to hustle for work, preferring to land as many gigs as possible without pricing herself out of the market. A two week gig often stretched to 6 weeks. She hit the jackpot with Oz as the shoot extended to 7 months.]

 

Work Cited

Harmetz, Aljean. The Making of the Wizard of Oz: Move Magic and Studio Power in the Prime of MGM –  and the Miracle of Production #1060. 1977. Delta, 1989.