Behold the Oscar-nominated Supporting Actresses of 1964: two wealthy matriarchs with strained relations to their children, one desperate widow who would very much like relations of any kind, an irritable church group leader watching your every move and one sweaty possessive housekeeper lurking around the corner.
1964's shortlist is one of the most senior in any acting category ever with an average age of 61. This 50 year old Oscar contest also acted as a finale for three enduring character actresses who Hollywood adored (Cooper, Evans, and Moorehead) but never quite enough at the right time to hand them the gold man. (In truth Dame Edith Evans, who did not attend the ceremony, was nominated one last time and quite deservedly for The Whisperers but that nomination is sadly almost as forgotten as the confused woman she masterfully played.)
The actress Melanie Lynskey (Happy Christmas, Heavenly Creatures) joins returning panelists Joe Reid, Nick Davis, Nathaniel R, Stinkylulu and You! We also tabulate reader votes and quotes from those ballots appear.
Without further ado, the main event...
SUPPORTING ACTRESS SMACKDOWN
GLADYS COOPER as "Mrs. Higgins" in My Fair Lady
Synopsis: A high society woman mediates the strained relationship between her difficult son and the flower girl he's been molding into a proper lady.
Stats: 76 yrs old. Third nomination. 11 minutes of screen time (or 6% of running time).
Melanie Lynskey: I'm not a fan of musicals, mostly because I'm allergic to forced cheer, exaggerated performances, and that horrible thing where people slow their speech down until they eventually break into song. My Fair Lady has all of this in abundance, though Cooper is guilty of none of it. She's beautiful, she is able to convey warmth and remove at the same time, and she delivers her lines with an appealing crispness and efficiency, but the character has so little to do that she only registers because Cooper is a bit magic.. ♥♥♥
Joe Reid: Guys, what is with this nomination? I'd seen My Fair Lady semi-recently and couldn't remember Cooper at all, but I figured that was me being distracted by Audrey Hepburn's lip-synching or the hats or something. Having watched it again, I super don't get it. It's not that Cooper's not good, but what is there of this role? It's like Ruby Dee in American Gangster without the slapping scene. I ran to my trusty "Inside Oscar" for some kind of explanation, but I came up empty. For this we lost out on Glynis Johns in Mary Poppins? ♥
Nathaniel: She wins admiration with her opening line “What a disagreeable surprise” since we share her frank annoyance with her screen son. Love the touch that she’s clearly only half listening to his chatter until something interests or annoys her. I’d sing to her ‘You did it! You did it! I knew that you could do it, and indeed you did.’ But what she had to do was almost nothing so… no singing. ♥♥
Nick Davis: On the evidence of this film, Cooper’s aged more gracefully than Cukor. She seems to be giving a tart but unostentatious reading of Mrs. Higgins, but like many of the actors, she is stymied by her director’s distant, stagebound camera. We don’t spend much time with her and barely see her when we do, making a capable if unchallenging performance seem even more minor. ♥
StinkyLulu: Who’da thunk that trusty old Gladys would contribute (of all things) a welcome surge of warmth to Cukor’s oddly clinical treatment of My Fair Lady? There’s no questioning Cooper’s capacity to cow the insufferable Rex Harrison, but tiny little Gladys and her nuanced little performance prove no match for Cukor’s steamrolling spectacle. I love that she’s there, but I can barely see her under that hat. ♥♥
Reader Write-Ins: "Serves the film well, adding subtle touches and spitting out those haughty lines. But still a boring coaster nomination" - John. (Reader average: ♥♥)
Actress earns 11 ❤s
DAME EDITH EVANS as "Mrs. St. Maugham" in The Chalk Garden
Synopsis: An old woman fears that her long estranged daughter will return to take the granddaughter away. She hires a governness to help control the unruly teenager
Stats: 76 yrs old. Second consecutive nomination (following Tom Jones). 32½ minutes of screen time (or 31% of running time).
Melanie Lynskey: Evans gives her character a haughty disconnectedness that works, for the most part. It's fascinating to see the complicated affection Mrs St Maugham has for Laurel; how she's completely incapable of giving the child any kind of boundary, even as she's chastising her. I love the almost combative way she flings that desperate question- "Would you stay with me? Would you?"- at Deborah Kerr. But she spends too much of the movie flatly intoning to people and staring blankly at them until it's her turn to speak again.. ♥♥♥
Joe Reid: It feels like this is the role people thought they were nominating Gladys Cooper for. Upper-crusty dowager truthing all over the film's more complicated characters, hitting all our anglophile buttons, that sort of thing. That she ultimately doesn't have the steel to match up with Deborah Ker (!!!) is a bit troubling, certainly. ♥♥
Nathaniel: Proto-Maggie Smith. She’s laying that fussy dowager blueprint down, rarely to be altered again. Though, frankly, The Chalk Garden could have used some of Smith’s inspired comic bite to make its outré elements more easily digestable. Evans is at her best when she’s revealing the petulant abandoned child within or pretending discourse when she’s all about decrees. But the singsong cadence of each line delivery only makes the film’s symbolism ‘but why won’t my garden grow?’ yet more dumbed down. ♥♥
Nick Davis: If more people knew this movie, I would say, “Ask about me, Olivia, ask about me!” to narcissists at parties, and my intimates could all chortle. So GIF-able, Edith! Otherwise, this feels like a Dench-in-Chocolat nod. I know she’s a Dame, but it’s hardly a peak role, and her emphasis on imperiousness clogs other possibilities in it. Moment to moment, her choices feel obvious. ♥♥
StinkyLulu: Evans is all kinds of delicious as the dotty, doting and devouring Mrs. St. Maugham. In her delectation of language and delight in distraction, Evans reminds me that when I’m an old woman I, too, wish to wear purple velveteen. But in this movie-in-search-of-a-tone, Evans tips a touch too comedic, even in her generally effective emotive moments, thereby slackening The Chalk Garden’s thin conflict right when it needs Mrs. St. Maugham to ratchet it up. ♥♥
Reader Write-Ins: "She indicates with small gestures both her iron will and vulnerability which she can flash through in a single instant." - Joel (Reader average: ♥♥♥)
Actress earns 14 ❤s
GRAYSON HALL as "Judith Fellowes" in The Night of the Iguana
Synopsis: The leader of a women's church group seeks revenge on her clergyman tour guide in Mexico when he's caught with her niece.
Stats: 42 yrs old. First and only nomination. 24 minutes of screen time (or 19% of running time).
Melanie Lynskey: Hall has a swagger to her that is immensely cool, and her voice and face are both fantastic. But I felt like she set her instrument to "villain" and didn't modulate it at all. A few softer moments played like set-ups for an angry payoff; when she starts apologizing to her ward who she believes is lying in the next bed, I wished I was truly feeling her connection to the girl. Her rigidity is especially jarring next to Burton, who's delicious - lively, sweaty, present. ♥♥
Joe Reid: I should start by saying how difficult it was to pay attention to anyone else in this movie besides Ava Gardner. But Hall manages to thrash and claw her way to occupying a small corner of the film, certainly with more presence than Deborah Kerr. Hall's character is written in broad nasty strokes, worthy of a Celluloid Closet's worth of post-modern study, but Hall never plays into the film's judgment of her, nor its impatience with the roadblocks to the narrative she represents. ♥♥♥♥
Nathaniel: She uses her frame so well. She’s standing upright even when seated she’s so stiff. When she blows her top that’s literal, the energy only able to escape out those wide eyes, raw vocal chords and even that unruly hair. I wish her scenes weren’t written so repetitively but bless her for that unexpectedly soft and blank “what is she talking about?” coda. Most actors would opt for dim self-awareness, but instead she only dimly asks for mercy; don’t make her take steps! ♥♥♥♥
Nick Davis: Hall is even more transfixing than the iguana, and almost more than Ava Gardner caressing shirtless houseboys in the moonlit surf. She’s the first coming of Grace Zabriskie. I’m impressed her presence didn’t get staler, given how the script keeps forcing her repeatedly through the same scene: approach neurotically, throw tantrum, swear revenge, repeat. Sadly, she short-changes the semi-repressed cravings that define the character. ♥♥
StinkyLulu: Oh, poor Miss Fellowes, she’s just so high strung. And with the refined yet feral Grayson Hall in the part? It’s not hard to believe that, at any moment, her little head might actually pop off. Though the characterization does have Fellowes seemingly stunted more by severe chronic loneliness than latent lesbionics, Hall’s performance yanks to the surface the incoherent yet blazing depths of feeling that compel the character’s every wild step. A vivid wonder. ♥♥♥♥
Reader Write-Ins: "She's both kitschy fun and not kitschy fun enough. It's the kind of performance that needs less Susan Hayward and more Agnes Moorehead. But then, what performance isn't?" - Goran. (Reader average: ♥♥♥½)
Actress earns 19½ ❤s
LILA KEDROVA as "Madame Hortense" in Zorba the Greek
Synopsis: An eccentric French widow sets her frequently-married sights on Zorba, a lusty Greek man, when he comes to stay at her hotel.
Stats: 46 yrs old. First and only nomination. 33½ minutes of screen time (or 24% of running time).
Melanie Lynskey: Kedrova plays Mme Hortense as a woman who so expects ridicule and disappointment, that even her grandstanding is half-hearted; her joy has a messy edge that suggests she doesn't trust it. Even when she should be swept up in a romantic moment, she's nodding anxiously, already anticipating the end of her lover's story, preparing for him to leave before he even knows he wants to. Her physicality is that of a woman exhausted by hard work; she appropriates the mannerisms of a refined lady, without ever letting go of that heaviness. ♥♥♥♥
Joe Reid: I can see why she won, as Kedrova plays an incredibly sympathetic character. She plays a rather sad creature, but does a decent job advancing a few moments where her inner life becomes the most interesting thing on the screen. It's nice to see, but there are limits to the sad-sympathetic-whore archetype. Hollywood tropes aside, Kedrova does strong work playing with the main narrative of the movie and, even better, running counter to it, occupying a corner of the story far more interesting than Zorba's logging schemes. ♥♥♥
Nathaniel: When she flashes back to her youth her performance gets so lyrical that you think she’ll burst into song. But she only dances awkwardly through an act she should have retired but can't let go of. Kedrova doesn’t always feel like she’s in the same movie as everyone else but hers is better, so, thank you. The film can’t decide whether to pity or ridicule this hotelier and maybe Lila feels the same? or is slyly covering her bases to play both sides: Lila aims for laughs but thin-skinned Madame Hortense doesn’t like it when she hits the target. ♥♥♥♥
Nick Davis: I object to the role, which forces its interpreter through serial stereotypes: the delusional coquette, the gaudy epicurean, the whimpering toddler in an aging courtesan’s body. Kedrova leans into some of these clichés, mugging with her face and body, limiting the impact of her sorry fate when it (inevitably) comes. But she works with what she’s got, livening up this weirdly self-serious travelogue picture. ♥♥♥
StinkyLulu: The instant we see Kedrova’s Madame Hortense, we know devastation will come to her (as it seems to all women in the world of this film). Yet Kedrova’s Madame Hortense wears her vulnerability as a veil, which the actress exploits for enigmatic peeks into the character’s deeper reserves of strength and complexity. Kedrova’s deftly humanizing work in the role permits us, when destruction does finally visit, to still care. ♥♥♥
Reader Write-Ins: "I can see why she won. The role is showy (but not substantive) and she gets to play the funny ditzy sexy older woman. But this movie belongs to the men" -Tom. (Reader average: ♥♥♥⅓)
Actress earns 20⅓ ❤s
AGNES MOORHEAD as "Velma Cruther" in Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte
Synopsis: A loyal housekeeper tries to keep her (possibly) homicidal employer shut off from the world. But why?
Stats: 64 yrs old. Fourth nomination. 22½ minutes screen time (or 17% of running time).
Melanie Lynskey: It's great when people understand the campiness of the movie they're in and play accordingly (see: Gershon, Gina), but shouldn't the actor at least look like they're having fun? This performance feels like it must have been almost painful to execute. Moorehead spends almost the entire movie crouching, screeching, and aggressively popping her head around corners. I found myself warming to her in moments where her character is forced to move with some urgency and speak in a whisper, making me long for a weirder, quieter, more secretive Velma. ♥♥
Joe Reid: I almost feel like I shouldn't get a vote when it comes to Agnes because, as a gay man, I've been improperly campaigned to. How are people not dressing up as Velma for the Village Halloween Parade to this day? Those faces she pulls! That wild-eyed take on the loyal domestic, fermented in isolation in that big dark house. In eight out of ten movies, Moorehead would have been awfully over the top. Thankfully, she knew exactly what movie she was in. ♥♥♥♥♥
Nathaniel: So broadly cartoonish that it’s no surprise to learn her sitcom career took off this same year (Bewitched). A film filled with severed hands, menstrual dresses, fake nightmares, and Bette Davis in pigtails, hardly needs any strenuous attempts at scene-stealing. Even the way she tiptoes is so over the top that there should be thundering footsteps in the sound mix. I don’t have the genealogy records to prove it but The Cruthers in Louisiana are direct descendants of Ruby Thewes in 1860s North Carolina. ♥♥
Nick Davis: Charlotte should be delicious but instead it tars everyone involved, giving them too little (Astor) or goading them to vandalize their talents (Davis). De Havilland proves you can enjoy yourself without sacrificing dignity. Hopefully Moorehead at least had fun. She’s a kick to watch, appears to recognize what claptrap she’s in, and overacts as only a great actor could. But an Oscar, for cartooning? ♥♥
StinkyLulu: Moorehead’s full-throated verve in this cardboard cutout of a character is a peculiar delight to watch — truly an alchemical marvel of actressing at the edges. Sure, I have no idea how this hill woman (with no hint of bayou) came to this Louisiana manse. But stop yer thinkin’! Behold the magic that is the Moorehead! Watch as, in her hands, the film’s shtickiest performance somehow becomes its most vividly human. ♥♥♥♥
Reader Write-Ins: "Moorehead delivers the goods in what amounts to her big-screen swan song. Manages to be at once funny, pathetic and disturbing" - Paul. (Reader average: ♥♥♥⅓)
Actress earns 18⅓ ❤s
THE SMACKDOWN GOES TO... LILA KEDROVA
In a very tight three way race between the widow, the Baptist, and the housekeeper... Madame Hortense just barely edges out her competition for one more ephemeral triumph to add to her nostalgic recollections. The voting this month was truly all over the place this time with no consensus among readers (where Grayson Hall took top honors but by the fractional slimmest of margins). Most of the panelists agree that the Academy should probably have looked a little further than this exact quintet. The most divisive performance came from Agnes Moorehead. Oscar trivia buffs should note that she is tied for second place with Amy Adams for Most Supporting Actress Nominations For Oscar Losers. (Thelma Ritter leads that pack with a 6/0 record.)
Thank you for attending!
If you enjoyed it, share it on facebook or twitter. We have another Smackdown related treat coming for you real soon, too. If you're new to the Smackdown we've revisited 1941's catfights, 1952's pie-throwing brawl, 1968's sinister sapphics, 1980's warm hugs, and 2003's messy histrionics. Previously over 30 Smackdowns were hosted @ StinkyLulu's old site.
What's next for the Smackdown?
We've scheduled this whole summer in advance for your viewing pleasure. For July we'll be looking at 1973. So queue up this interesting quartet so that you can vote and play along: The Exorcist, Paper Moon, American Graffiti, and Summer Wishes Winter Dreams.