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Mercedes McCambridge: All the King's Men (1949)

Manuel here kicking off our centennial celebration of under appreciated (and under discussed!) Oscar winning actress Mercedes McCambridge.

We begin with her film debut which also happens to be her Oscar-winning vehicle, All The King's Men. She'd been doing radio work consistently for over a decade but this was as big a break as they got. The film is a political parable about that most rare of characters, the honest politician (Broderick Crawford as Willie Stark), who succumbs to corruption on his way to the top only to be punished by his deeds. It's Shakespearean in essence and all the more powerful for being based on a real-life politician, Louisiana governor, Huey Long (the inspiration behind Robert Penn Warren novel of the same name).

It's a testosterone-fueled film with only two gals...

the young and beautiful socialite Anne Stanton (Joanne Dru), the daughter of former Governor Stanton who ends up romantically entangled with Stark; and the cunning and ambitious Sadie Burke (McCambridge) who pines away for Stark while dutifully managing his campaign. Crawford, it must be said, is quite charming but in 2016 one cannot help but bristle at the way the plot coerces both beautiful actresses into being smitten by his heavyset Stark, who's first a bumbling honest fool and later a ruthless kingpin. Neither woman seems particularly taken by his money or his power—even an early scene with his wife has her unable to explain why she loves him so—making their blind devotion to him all the more baffling.

“Find a dummy? That’s what we got!”

McCambridge’s role is the type that, pardon the cliché, jolts the film alive. That first line reading, sardonically aimed at her fellow campaign managers who are hoping to rope some “dummy” into running for Governor opposite their candidate to split the hick vote, cuts right through the amiable tone the film had been sustaining til then. It establishes her no-nonsense attitude which drives much of the sardonic humor of the film. I love her first interaction with John Ireland’s Jack Burden, the journalist who’d first reported on Stark as an honest man, who’s curious as to why Sadie is on the Stark campaign trail.

Now tell, what are you on this merry-go-round for?

I take notes?

For who?

For those whom pay me.

Which is?


Smart people?

Yeah. Anybody who pays me is smart.

The camera stays with her and catches every moment of her deliciously inscrutable line readings. She’s coy but amusing, knowing but not condescending. It’d be the type of witty repartee you’d easily find in a screwball comedy except, of course, we’re in a noir so the subtext of the playful interrogation is a lot more sinister than this transcript suggests. It’s no surprise that her inadvertent machinations end up making Stark the charming populist politician he always hoped he could be. For the rest of the film she’s always at Stark’s side, often in the middle of the frame merely observing—it reminded me, at times, of Winslet’s Joanna Hoffman in Steve Jobs, in the way she functions as a work-wife to Stark, though, of course, the film pushes her to want to become Stark’s real wife.

In the other scene worth highlighting here as we celebrate McCambridge, we see Sadie in Jack’s room picking up a picture of Anne in front of a mirror as she talks to herself about what the Stanton girl has that she doesn’t. It’s a curious scene for the way it requires the actress to basically tear herself down, commenting on her rough skin, rubbing her own face as she does so. It’s heartbreaking to watch but there’s a cunning quality to her performance, for Sadie isn’t merely being self-deprecating, she’s also setting up the piercing punchline to her story: “I can see what Willie sees in her,” delivered with venom and pathos. She knows Jack, Anne’s old flame, has no idea about Stark and Anne, and this performance is ultimately a way to get him to understand what’s going on. It’s a fine line McCambridge plays between wanting to warn Jack away from Anne (and Stark) while also vocalizing what’s surely been on her mind about her own inadequacies. But nothing beats the final moments of the scene: after Jack slaps her, wanting to shut her up, she laughs. Not a roaring laugh. A pitying, mumble of a laugh that’s all the more punishing for it.

After that the film drifts away from her but that laughter stays with you, mocking you, taunting you, becoming the very laugh track of this outsized political noir, as if she’s already seen what’s ahead and, keeping herself from crying, she’ll laugh it off instead. And all in her very first film role!

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Reader Comments (10)

Very nice critique of an excellent performance by a unique performer. She was definitely was the strongest in her category that year and a worthy winner, though I think the unnominated Margaret Wycherly in White Heat gave the best supporting performance of the year.

I haven't seen the film in years but you've inspired me to give it another look.

March 11, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

I had to read the book years ago for a University course and saw the film then. It's a shame the newer version with Sean Penn as Stark wasn't as good.
Patricia Clarkson played the part of Sadie and Kate Winslet was Staunton.

But Mercedes McCambridge and Broderick Crawford filled their roles so much more believably - they really seemed to "be the part". You can't define presence but sometimes you know it when you see it.

March 11, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

Yes, she was a deserving winner and the best of the field that year: the other 4 Ethel Waters, Ethel Barrymore, Celeste Holm and Elsa Lanchester are all fairly lackluster. But I'm with Joelo, Margaret Wycherly's performance in White Heat is a one-of-a-kind experience that has to be seen to be believed. In fact, the movie itself is my favorite American film of 1949 and James Cagney the Best Actor. On top of being one of the most sadistically violent films in Hollywood history it's also one of the funniest. Dig James Cagney sitting on his mother's lap, and their relationship overall. Unbelievable! One other performance should also be noted: Sonia Dresdel as Ralph Richardson's wife in The Fallen Idol. The name may be totally obscure, but the performance is truly extraordinary

March 11, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterken s

This is one of my all time favorite supporting wins and you've summed up why beautifully. A complicated performance of a complicated woman -- and a debut, too. Unbelievable. But it seems I'll have to check out White Heat. Weirdly I have seen that one but I think i was 15 or something and I remember nothing about it.

March 11, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

The comparison with Winslet is so interesting.

March 11, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

I think her voice set her apart. It was low, it was rough and without pretension .....just like many of the characters she played. Not surprising she voiced Pazuzu in the Exorcist

March 11, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterLeslie19

Luv her in Johnny Guitar too!!! Not everyone can hold her own in front o the formidable J Crawford!!!

March 11, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterClaran

I wasn't going to say this, but don't look at the Supporting Actress Smackdown at Stinkylulu's. Mercedes came in third!

March 12, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterRobMiles

Rob Miles- yes! I kept thinking this reading the article. I might be tempted to pick Waters as my best of the year. Her movie isn't the best but the trio of women in it are wonderful.

Also Ken S- ditto on Sonia Dresdel.

March 12, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterTom

This was a great debut performance and easily the best of the nominees. But there were other more deserving nominees. Like others have said, Margaret Wycherly in White Heat stands out for her monstrous Mommy and holds her scenes with Cagney at his most intense.

Elizabeth Patterson (AKA Mrs. Trumble on I Love Lucy) is terrific as the tough old woman in Intruder in the Dust. Miriam Hopkins as the sympathetic aunt in The Heiress also delivers a great supporting performance. William Wyler worked with her several times and seemed to be able to curb her natural tendencies to overact.

March 13, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterCanada James

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