Hope Lange received her first Oscar nomination for her performance as Selena Cross in Peyton Place.
Selena Cross is Allison McKenzie's kind-hearted best friend born on the wrong side of the tracks whose mother works as a housekeeper at the McKenzies' house and whose step-father is an abusive alcoholic. It's a character that very easily elicits sympathy in the audience and it gives the actress plenty of opportunity for tearful, Oscar-baity, big moments. Hope Lange, though, never seems to be actively trying to gain the audience's pity - she gives a performance that is never manipulative, which could have very easily been the case, and instead she portrays her character with welcome honesty and naturalism. Through her performance she always suggests her character's background and she clearly stands out from the very beginning from actors who play her classmates: Lange's Selena does not posesses either Allison's idealism nor Betty's apparent carelessness - she's been through enough not to delude herself with dreamy ambitions but her hard-work and dedication also gave her a maturity and wiseness beyond her years. She conveys all this even when she is technically not doing all that much and among the ensemble she seems to be one of the few to have a clear, deep understanding of her character. Selena is an immediately likeable character not only because it's easy to feel sorry for her condition but also because she is a very sweet, selfless and humble person: again, Lange never overdoes this aspect of this character but she naturally makes Selena a very endearing character and I loved every minute she was on-screen because of how genuine her whole performance feels.
One of the most admirable aspects of Lange's performance is that she manages to make something even in her scenes with Diane Varsi and David Nelson even if neither of them are particularly satisfying in those scenes. Varsi doesn't really seem to bother striking up a chemistry with Lange but the latter still manages to convince me that there is a meaningful, poignant friendship between Allison and Selena and she alone makes their goodbye scene at the bus station surprisingly moving. She is also very good in her scenes with David Nelson even if I think he gives a rather bland performance as Ted: the two don't share much of a chemistry (the blame is totally on Nelson) but Lange still gives a nice and touching display of love and tenderness in their scenes together, such as in the scene in which Ted has to leave because of the war. Even if I never cared too much for Ted and Selena as a couple, Lange believably portrays her character's love for him and this is essential to the later scenes in the movie in which I never doubted she would have risked everything for him - and that's a true testament to her talent and commitment to the role.
*This paragraph contains some big spoilers* The strongest part of her performance comes when Lucas, Selena's step-father, rapes her during a drunken rage. Lange makes the scene terrifyingly real and she is particularly devastating in a later scene when Selena visits Dr. Swain for an abortion - it's a truly heartbreaking moment thanks to Lange who powerfully realizes Selena's trauma and she develops a moving, powerful chemistry with Lloyd Nolan (who gives the second best performance in the movie as the doctor). She is extremely impressive later on in a scene in which she tries to run away from Lucas in the woods, a moment she plays with thrilling and compelling intensity, or the one in which he unexpectedly comes back home and tries to attack her again before being finally killed by Selena in self-defense. It's a terrific moment for Lange who in this few seconds unleashes the grief and anguish Selena kept to herself for all that time. The courtroom scenes in the last half an hour on the movie as Selena is put on trial are rather cheesy but Lange overcomes the weaknesses of the screenplay by giving a honest and heartbreaking depiction of her character's desperation as well as her determination to keep the rape a secret in order not to ruin the reputation of Ted. Her scene on the stand is a difficult one that she executes exceptionally and her reactionary shots in the final scene are equally impressive - even if by then I really stopped caring about the rest of the movie, I did not stop caring for Selena's story and fate and this is only because of Lange's compelling turn. *Spoilers Off*
Hope Lange delivers a moving performance that easily stands as the best part of the movie. She takes a role that could have easily been cheesy, melodramatic and manipulative and instead gives a honest and believable portrayal of Selena's plight. It's a terrific performance that gives the movie a reason to be seen.