Ruth Hussey received her first Oscar nomination for her performance as Elizabeth "Liz" Imbrie in The Philadelphia Story.
The Philadelphia Story is a fine comedy about Tracy Lord, a heiress whose planned remarriage is put to test by the unexpected arrival of her former husband and a tabloid-type reporter. Despite its status as a classic, I've never been enamored with this movie and a rewatch only made my appreciation cool down a little bit. It's a movie I did not mind watching in the slightest but I thought it struggled with its tone in the final act and I would say the writing, as good as it is in the comedic side of things, has some rather dated aspects. I have to say I found the confrontation scene between Tracy and her father almost unbearable to watch as it seems to place all of the blame (including the one of her father's infidelity!) on her character. Also I have to say I found the cast as a whole to be a bit of a disappointment: outside of Katharine Hepburn, I thought everyone else ranged from quite good to rather weak.
Liz Imbrie is the photographer who works with Macaulay "Mike" Connor (Oscar-winning James Stewart), who get to cover the wedding with the aid of Dexter Haven (Cary Grant), Tracy's former-husband. On paper, it's a pretty great part: she gets to be the wisecracking, sassy type of character but also gets enough depth and focus to become a three-dimensional character instead of a mere stereotype. Unfortunately, the strength of the part is undercut by two factors: first off, Katharine Hepburn pretty much dominates the whole movie from start to finish and even though I don't think The Philadelphia Story features their best work both Cary Grant and James Stewart have quite a lot of screen-presence that kind of overshadows everyone else in the movie; the second thing is that I never felt Ruth Hussey truly made the most out of the part, resulting in a satisfactory, occasionally impressive but ultimately not great performance.
The shortcomings of Hussey's performance are most evident if you watch Celeste Holm's portrayal of the same character in the 1956 remake High Society: that film is pretty terrible, but Holm delivers an absolutely delightful performance that pretty much steals the whole movie and also functions as its emotional anchor. Liz is rarely the center of the scene, but she still gets plenty of opportunity to stand out as a great comic relief and I never felt Hussey really became that. This does not mean she is bad: she is a good fit for the role and nicely portrays her character's sarcastic nature while making still Liz quite endearing (unlike James Stewart who, especially in the beginning, comes across as rather obnoxious in that regard). She acquits herself nicely into the role and she's always a mildly enjoyable presence: nonetheless, her work is still a bit of a disappointment considering the potential of the role and I never felt she made the character as entertaining as she could have been ("We've come for the body of Macauley Connor" was the only moment of her performance I thought was truly funny). Especially opposite Katharine Hepburn's fireball of a performance, Hussey results a little underwhelming because she's not nearly as forceful and incisive as she is - watching her performance, I kept wondering what a natural scene-stealer like Rosalind Russell or Eve Arden could have accomplished with the role. I felt her comedic timing was not always quite on point and too often I felt she lacked the necessary verve to make her character stand out.
That said, I don't want to sound too negative about her performance as I do think there are parts in which Hussey succeeds. First off, I like how the unpretentiousness of her performance underlines her character's different and humbler background and even though Liz's previous marriage is only briefly alluded to I thought Hussey did a very good job at conveying her history of pain and heartbreak. But the aspect of Liz that Hussey gets best is her unrequited love for Mike: throughout the whole movie, the camera occasionally focuses on her face and in those moments she does a great job at portraying Liz's inner plight and longing. There's an air of melancholy that hangs all over the performance, with Hussey conveying a whole lot in the spaces between words and adding a lifetime of disappointment to simple lines ("I'm used to it"). The highlight of her whole performance is her scene on the staircase with Cary Grant, in which Liz admits her feelings for Mike to Dexter and tells him that she knows he is growing attracted to Tracy but also shows her hope that one day he'll finally become a more mature person and that he'll realize she is the one. Though very brief, it's perhaps my favorite scene of the movie and Hussey is excellent in it, perfectly portraying her character's unhappiness but also hopefulness as well as a great deal of dignity and grip over her own feelings. Just like Dexter, after that scene the viewer only has a greater admiration and respect towards Liz. The character does not get a particularly great closure as the ending of the movie is a little bit too rushed but Hussey does a fine job at portraying her concern when Mike proposes to Tracy, her relief when she turns him down and a note of hopefulness at the very end, leaving open the possibility that things might work out between Mike and Liz.
Overall, this is a perfectly respectable performance from Ruth Hussey, who conveys beautifully the inner vulnerability of her character and has some sincerely moving moments while remaining consistent with the light-hearted tone the film should have. It's the purely comedic side that leaves something to be desired as she does not quite shows the needed screen-presence to stand out in a cast full of such charismatic stars and does not quite bring enough energy to make Liz a truly memorable comedic relief. A fine performance with some excellent moments but a bit of a missed opportunity as well.