martedì 15 agosto 2017

Best Actress in a Supporting Role 1992: Vanessa Redgrave in Howards End

Vanessa Redgrave received her sixth Oscar nomination for her performance as Ruth Wilcox in Howards End.


Howards End is a magnificent movie revolving around three families belonging to three different social classes at the beginning of the 20th century. First off, I think this picture is an absolute masterpiece of writing, with brilliantly clever dialogue and carefully layered characters. It's such a stunning depiction of that specific time of history while feeling so utterly fresh and contemporary as well. The portrayal of the differences between social classes and the hypocrisy of the ruling class never becomes heavy-handed or one-sided, but it's treated in a human, sensitive fashion that creates at least an understanding even to the most morally questionable characters. The score is absolutely enchanting and it enhances the atmosphere of poetic beauty that surrounds the film and the cinematography is wonderful. And there is not a single bad performance in the cast, though I feel Helena Bonham Carter deserves a special mention for her career-best work here. 

Ruth Wilcox is a challenging role for many reasons. On one hand, it's technically quite limited as it appears on screen only for a handful of scenes at the beginning of the movie and it serves mostly as a setup for the rest of the story. On the other hand, the whole plot relies heavily on her character and the ability of the actress to give believability and emotional weight to the character's final decision on her deathbed, which not only sets the action to motion but is also a representation of the movie's themes and ideas. Thankfully the actress in question is far from being a random one, but it's Vanessa Redgrave, who is in my opinion one of the most intelligent, versatile and gifted performers to ever grace the screen. Redgrave is one of those exceptional actresses that can make calculated acting look spontaneous. Every performance of hers feels precisely and accurately studied and it's always quite apparent that behind her performances there has been a careful preparation, but at the same time she never feels too technical, rehearsed or unsincere: she's one of those very unique actresses that can be both cerebral and emotional in their approach, both technical and raw. And this has rarely been more visible than in her performance in Howards End: there are definite mannerisms in both her physical work and her vocalization, yet it's one of the most delicate and hearfelt pieces of acting I have ever seen.

When we meet Ruth, it's already clear that she's seriously ill and that she is not going to live much longer. Redgrave is outstanding in her depiction of her character's physical condition: she has such a remarkable way of conveying the character's weakness through her body and she really gives you the impression that this woman is aching every step of the way. But what's most incredible is her voice work which is easy to take for granted but is actually quite an achievement: first off, her eloquent, refined way of speaking effectively establishes Ruth's background as a very wealthy, educated woman; moreover, her breathless delivery feels just right for a woman who is in such a painful state though she carefully never overdoes it either; at the same time though there is a spark in her voice that betrays the life-loving, radiant soul that lies beneath Ruth's tired, weak-willed appearence. Redgrave's understanding of the character is so deep that she manages to portray in her performance both the lively person that she used to be and the dying woman whose hunger for life has not waned. Redgrave's performance is short but she's so brilliant I felt like I had always known Ruth Wilcox.

Two things are requested from Redgrave to accomplish in this movie: the first one is to convey during her brief screen-time Ruth's infinite love for her house, Howards End, and the second one is to portray Ruth's affection for her burgeoise friend Margaret (Emma Thompson in an Oscar-winning performance), therefore bringing believability to her eventual choice to leave Howards End to her, even though she belongs to a lower class than hers. And Redgrave does both things astonishingly. Just take her very first scene in the movie, in which she is simply walking around Howards End: Redgrave's worldess acting in this scene is absolutely first-rate - she doesn't need any dialogue to convey the character's affection for the aforementioned place. She walks as if she were trying to capture every single moment she spends there forever into her memory. In later scenes, whenever the name Howards End pops up, Redgrave's face just lightens up, her voice filled with nostalgic fondness and her eyes sparkling with emotion. My favorite scene of her whole performance might be the one in which she tells Margaret of the myth of the pig's teeth at Howards End - it's such a beautifully understated moment that Redgrave plays with such a heartfelt delicacy it becomes one of the most poignant moments in he movie. And when she begs Margaret to come to see Howards End her performance turns absolutely heartbreaking - her delivery of "Come with now, now, come with me now" is absolutely devastating as it is so hopeful and enthusiastic in spite of Ruth's rapidly declining health.

Ruth's friendship with Margaret Schlegel is also one of the movie's most touching aspects as it is on one hand so unlikely and on the other hand so beautiful. Ruth and Margaret are two extremely different people: Ruth is an old-fashioned aristocratic (at one point she remarks that she doesn't think women should vote) while Margaret is a liberal thinker from the middle class. But they're both very kind-hearted and ultimately their bond overcomes their social differences. Both actresses are absolutely wonderful at portraying the friendship between the two characters - they share a lovely, poignant and sincere chemistry and create this beautiful, meaningful relationship that is the emotional crux of the movie in spite of Redgrave's very limited time on screen. Each of their interactions are absolutely heartwarmin to watch, especially the scene in which they go Christmas shopping together. You never doubt the emotional honesty of Ruth's and Margaret's affection for each other and when Ruth decides to leave Howards End to Margaret and not to her family it feels just the right and obvious outcome because of the deep connection that developed between the two. Redgrave's final scenes at the hospital are very low-key but Redgrave is absolutely wonderful in them as she brings so much grace and dignity to Ruth right up to her very final moment.

I know not everyone is impressed by this performance but personally I think it's an absolutely astonishing turn from one of the greatest actress ever. Ruth Wilcox could have been a mere plot device but Vanessa Redgrave creates a three-dimensional individual that becomes the movie's emotional crux. An elegant, subtle, delicate and heartbreaking portrayal that keeps haunting the movie even long after she has left.

5/5

sabato 12 agosto 2017

Best Actress in a Supporting Role 1992: Joan Plowright in Enchanted April

Joan Plowright received her first Oscar nomination for her performance as Mrs. Fisher in Enchanted April.


Enchanted April revolves around four women dissatisfied with their lives who decide to take a vacation in a castle in Italy in order to find peace and happiness. I remember finding the movie rather dull and uninteresting the first time I watched it, so I was actually quite surprised when I found myself enjoying it this time around. It's far from being a great movie and there are considerable flaws to be found in it - the cinematography is a little underwhelming as it does not capture the full potential of the beautiful landscape and the screenplay, although Oscar nominated, is not particularly great with the all of the characters being somewhat sketchy and a few awkwardly written lines (Lottie's monologue about love is rather cringe-worthy). But nonetheless it's a charming movie that might never become anything that special but is still nice enough to watch and Mike Newell deserves a lot of credit for that as the movie's charm derives mostly from the delicate and tenderly hopeful tone he manages to set for the story. The cast is not amazing, but it's rather engaging for the most part.

The first time I watched the movie I was completely unimpressed by Joan Plowright's performance and honestly quite baffled by the nomination, which I immediately disregarded as a typical veteran nomination. Having rewatched the movie, I now feel quite differently: I still don't think it's a great performance (though it's mostly the role's fault if it isn't) and I felt there were better performances that could have been nominated instead (even if we stay within the "stern old lady softens up" trope, I thought Maggie Smith did it better in an even more light-hearted way in Sister Act). But I've actually come to appreciate this performance and the delicacy of Plowright's realization of her character's arc. My main problem with the performance doesn't really come from Plowright's acting but from the conventionality of the role itself: Mrs. Fisher is nothing more than an archetype, specifically the one of the elder woman who is grumpy and distant towards everyone only to reveal later on a more tender and sensitive side. It's a role that has been seen and done a thousand times really, to the point it's not all that exciting unless a) it's performed in a particularly outstanding fashion b) the role is written with particular depth and complexity. Sadly, it's not the case here: Plowright does a perfectly respectable job with the character and the ease and confidence of her acting style shouldn't be a surprise considering her distinguished history both on stage and on-screen, but at the same time I wouldn't say she exactly reinvents the wheel with this performance; and the role itself is a rather unoriginal version of the aforementioned archetype. But still, Plowright's natural talent is enough to slightly elevate the role and even if the overall result isn't all that memorable it's a very nice performance.

Plowright's earliest scenes in the movie are actually the ones I like the least. She is more than adequate in her portrayal of her character's cranky behavior and she has a few genuinely funny moments ("I didn't know Shakespeare and Chaucher either", "I hope you're not in the habit of seeing dead people"). At the same time, though, the writing behind the character is at its most conventional in those scenes and I have to admit that there were moments in which I actually felt Plowright herself was a little off. Especially in the first scene, she occasionally comes across as a little more theatrical than she needs to and might go just a tad over-the-top in her deliveries and over-accentuates Mrs. Fisher' pompusness. But those are just very minor quibbles and Plowright deserves a lot of credit for managing to make Mrs. Fisher far less obnoxious than she could've been. Technically she is a very cold, unlikeable character for at least half of the film but Plowright manages to suggest that there is more to Mrs. Fisher than what meets the eye, very subtly conveying the inner loneliness and quiet desperation of the character, who spends most of the time reading and internally mourning her late husband. I'm usually not a fan of the use of voice-over as I find it a very unsubtle and obvious technique but I have to say that it's probably the performance's strongest asset - Plowright has an extremely expressive voice which makes those moments feel particularly intimate, heartfelt and touching.

In my opinion Plowright's performance grows in strength as Mrs. Fisher starts to soften up to the other ladies and finally befriends them. The transition is a little bit rushed but somehow Plowright manages to make it work - Mrs. Fisher's newfound sweetness, gentleness and humour don't feel like altogether new but rather, thanks to Plowright's carefully realized performance, as things that were always hidden inside of her. She just blossoms on-screen and Plowright manages to make this develpment surprisingly affecting. Her character is often tossed aside towards the end of the movie in favour of Miranda Richardson's and Polly Walker's but she is a welcome presence whenever she pops up. My favorite scene of her performance comes close to the very end, in which Lottie (Josie Lawrence) promises Mrs. Fisher that they will keep being friends when they return to London. Again, Plowright's killer-good voice over is key to her portrayal of Mrs. Fisher's loneliness and she deserves credit for managing to create a somewhat meaningful dymanic between her character and Lawrence's one despite the latter's rather overcooked performance. And she certainly ends the performance on a very pleasant and heartwarming note as Mrs. Fisher plants her walking stick in the ground to let it blossom as she leaves the castle - it's a rather lovely moment and a fittingly sweet closure for the movie.

Mrs. Fisher is not a great role or an especially challenging one, but Joan Plowright's performance manages to rise above it. It's not an especially remarkable achievement and probably every good British actress her age could have delivered a solid performance in the role, but nonetheless she does a very nice job at portraying her character's transition from bitterly cold and warmingly open-hearted. It's very much like the movie itself - nothing particularly noteworthy but definitely pleasant to watch.

3/5

martedì 8 agosto 2017

Best Actress in a Supporting Role 1992


And the nominees are...

Judy Davis - Husband and Wives
Joan Plowright - Enchanted April
Vanessa Redgrave - Howards End
Miranda Richardson - Damage
Marisa Tomei - My Cousin Vinny

What are your predictions for my ranking? How would you personally rank the nominees?

domenica 6 agosto 2017

Best Actress in a Supporting Role 1975: Ranking

5. Sylvia Miles in Farewell, My Lovely
Sylvia Miles admirably tries to rise above the clichèd nature of the role but ultimately her lack of screen-time and the movie's lack of interest towards her character prevent her from becoming anything particularly memorable.
Best scene: Marlowe's first visit at Jesse's house.

4. Lee Grant in Shampoo
Lee Grant tries to add depth and complexity to an underwritten, stock part and even if she does succeed to an extent the overall result is a solid though not especially remarkable performance in a very forgettable movie.
Best scene: Felicia realizes she is losing both her husband and her lover to the same woman.

3. Brenda Vaccaro in Once is Not Enough
Once is Not Enough is an unbelievably terrible movie but Vaccaro's performance rises above the quality of the movie. It's hardly a great role but she brings energy and life to an otherwise lifeless experience and even manages to be somewhat moving in her final scene.
Best scene: Linda is fired from her job.

2. Ronee Blakley in Nashville
Ronee Blakley delivers an outstanding performance in perhaps the movie's most challenging role. She brings an enormous amount of charm and grace to the role of Barbara Jean, she is amazing in the musical numbers and she does a heartbreaking job at portraying her character's underlying emotional distress. It's a terrific, endlessly fascinating performance.
Best scene: Breakdown on stage.

1. Lily Tomlin in Nashville
Blakley used to be my pick, but on a rewatch I was surprised by how much I was impressed by Tomlin's small but unforgettable portrayal. She makes the absolute most out of her limited screen-time creating a three-dimensional character with whom the audience can relate and then Altman hands her the most delicate and moving scene of the film and she's absolutely incredible in it. It's a subtly amazing performance.
Best scene: "I'm Easy"


Honorable Omissions: It doesn't really count as an omission since she not only was nominated in the leading category but she actually won, but personally I think Louise Fletcher's performance as Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest belongs her. I won't discuss her performance in depth for the time being as I'll eventually review her when I'll come to Best Actress 1975, but I'll say that it's a far more complex performance than it seems at first and it's easy to take her work for granted. Rachel Roberts does an amazing job in Picnic at Hanging Rock, impressively portraying every facet of her complicated characer: Miss Appleyard starts off as a somewhat typically stern headmistress and Roberts is great at it, but as the movie progresses she's phenomenal at unleashing her character's venomous cruelty as well as conveying her own emotional turmoil and distress. Helen Morse is effective as the movie's emotional and moral center, and Anne-Louise Lambert is unforgettable in her small role as the graceful, mysterious, almost otherworldly Miranda. In Nashville, Geraldine Chaplin delivers a wonderfully hilarious turn as Opal, being so deliciously off-putting in every single scene in her portrayal of the completely inadequate and insensitive reporter. In the same movie, Gwen Welles is also especially moving in her portrayal of the desperate yet stubbornly hopeful Sueleen, with her striptease scene being particularly devastating. Faye Dunaway is terrific in Three Days of the Condor - it's a surprisingly tender and subdued performance from her and she does a wonderful job at elevating a potential plot device into a three-dimensional, relatably touching character. Plus, her chemistry with Robert Redford is top notch. Veronica Cartwright is terrific in Inserts: she is very entertaining in portraying a certain degree of ditziness in her character without ever overdoing it, which could have been something very easy to do especially as far as the voice is concerned; but past that she is very moving in her portrayal of her character's underlying desperation and the helplessness of her addiction. Jessica Harper is also very memorable in the same movie - she brings the needed mystery and allure to the character and her chemistry with Richard Dreyfuss is absolutely astonishing as the two of them play off each other in such a compelling fashion; on her own, Harper is also great in her portrayal of Cathy's underlying ambition to achieve her goals. Barbara Feldon is great in Smile - it's a very tricky role that borders on caricature, but she excels in it by portraying the sheer emptiness behind her nice façade. She does a striking job at showing the two sides of her character, warm and welcoming in front of others and cold and detatched in her home. Some of the actresses portraying the contestants at the beauty pageant are very good too, especially Annette O'Toole, who is quite touching in her portrayal of her character's desperation, and Joan Prather, who delivers a nicely subdued performance as the least pretentious of the girls. 
The next year: Best Supporting Actress 1992, as requested. 

My Best Supporting Actress Ballot:
  1. Lily Tomlin, Nashville
  2. Rachel Roberts, Picnic at Hanging Rock - 5/5
  3. Ronee Blakley, Nashville 
  4. Louise Fletcher, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest - 5/5
  5. Veronica Cartwright, Inserts - 4.5/5
  6. Geraldine Chaplin, Nashville - 4.5/5
  7. Gwen Welles, Nashville - 4.5/5
  8. Barbara Feldon, Smile - 4.5/5
  9. Jessica Harper, Inserts - 4.5/5
  10. Faye Dunaway, Three Days of the Condor - 4.5/5

mercoledì 2 agosto 2017

Best Actress in a Supporting Role 1975: Ronee Blakley in Nashville

Ronee Blakley received her first Oscar nomination for her performance as Barbara Jean in Nashville.


Ronee Blakley plays the role of Barbara Jean, a beloved country singer who returns to Nashville after recovering from a burn accident. Barbara Jean is a challenging part, in more ways than one: not only it requires a great voice, screen-presence and charisma, but also requires the ability to come off as a genuinely good-hearted, entirely selfless person without coming across as unbelievable and/or bland. Thankfully, Ronee Blakley delivers an absolutely first-rate performance that meets every demand of the role - she simply becomes Barbara Jean, realizing her both as a three-dimensional, fully-fleshed character and the symbol she is supposed to represent. Whereas Lily Tomlin's Linnea Reese served as the movie's most human and relatable character, Barbara Jean is always shot and presented at a certain distance - she's an almost otherwordly presence, a pure product of the musical enviroinment (and a victim of it) that deeply moves us even though Altman never allows us to get too close, a decision that ends up making the character all the more fascinating and haunting. 

Barbara Jean's first appearence into the movie is preceded by a certain build-up, and she certainly does not disappoint: she dominates the screen in a way that never once feels overbearing. She possesses a unique, luminous radiance that makes her status as Nashville's sweetheart not only believable but almost obvious. But most importantly she manages to make Barbara Jean's sweetness feel completely sincere: she brings such a lovely amount of grace and honesty to the character you never once think that her kindness is a put on. Barbara Jean is the personification of pure goodness and Blakley manages to embody perfectly the quality of this character without ever turning her into a one-dimensional presence - she is both a representation of goodness while also being a layered, believable character. Regarding the musical part of her performance, it's always a real treat to watch her perform: not only she has a wonderful singing voice but she also has a truly captivating presence that makes her musical numbers particularly remarkable. It's in the singing scenes that her Barbara Jean truly seems alive - she simply lights up the screen and gives an impression of ease and confidence, two qualities that are utterly lacking (and rightly so) in Blakley's portrayal in the more intimate scenes. By listening to the songs' lyrics, that Blakley wrote herself, you can really understand the actress' understanding of Barbara Jean and her commitment to the role: she adds a lot of complexity to the character with the songs and also creates a history for her. With "My Idaho Home" she gives a whole backstory to her and she sings the song with a moving degree of nostalgia and fondness for her family. She also delivers in her performance of "Dues", which feels painfully real and heartbreaking considering Barbara Jean's own troubled relationship with her husband Barnett (Allen Garfield).

We first get a true glimpse of Barbara Jean's emotional instability after she collapses while going to greet some fans. Her following scenes at the hospital are heartbreakingly well-played as Blakley does not lose the graceful gentleness of the character's "public" moments but she feels much more pale, uneasy and unsure than when she is on stage performing. Blakley strikingly deprives Barbara Jean of her charismatic presence in those scenes, instead she just portrays her as a fragile, lost soul that receives no help from everyone around her. Blakley is extremely moving in her portrayal of Barbara Jean's turmoil and nails each of the emotional beats in her performance as the character grows progressively closer to a nervous breakdown. I particularly like her scene at the hospital with Garfield, with the two actors doing an especially effective job at portraying their characters' strained relationship: on his own, Garfield is very good at portraying both a genuine concern and a certain degree of cruelty in his treatment of his wife, while Blakley is touching in her portrait of Barbara Jean's helplessness as she is manipulated by her husband. But the crowning moment of her performance is most definitely her nervous breakdown on stage, where she starts telling disjointed, random stories before being escorted off stage: it's an extremely tricky scenes that Blakley solves with surprising ease, naturally portraying her character's growing unease as her rambling becomes more and more confused while still using the scene to add yet other layers to the character and further exploring her life before the events of the movie.

Barbara Jean could have been a one-dimensional character, a mere martyr inside the twisted world of Nashville. But Ronee Blakley manages to give an absolutely marvelous performance that metts all the challenge of this difficult role, making Barbara Jean the sort of iconic figure she is supposed to be while also delivering a layered portrait of the emotionally unstable, desperate person that lies beneath. It's an amazing performance that is key to the overall success of the movie.

5/5