Presenting the Supporting Actresses of '54. Two lonely airplane passengers, a cooly competent executive assistant, a Native American cattle rancher's wife, and a sister seeking justice in her brother's death.
1954's supporting actress shortlist is, as you'll surely discover while reading or watching, a mystifying batch, particularly considering several films released that year that stood the test of time more emphatically. What's more, ALL five nominees sprung from well-populated ensemble films, the likeliest type of film to spur divisive conversations about who really deserved a nomination. Aside from Oscar favorite Claire Trevor (The High and the Mighty) -- rather generously included but when they love you they love you -- all were Academy newbies though Katy Jurado (Broken Lance), Nina Foch (Executive Suite) and Jan Sterling (The High and the Mighty) had each co-starred in recent Best Picture contenders (High Noon, An American in Paris, and Johnny Belinda respectively)... which surely helped their momentum towards placement. But what a bizarre shortlist nonetheless. Eva Marie Saint, newly arrived to the cinema, had the biggest role, one might say a leading role, in the year's Best Picture On the Waterfront, which went on to win 8 Oscars on the big night from 12 nominations.
Here to talk about these five turns are returning panelists Brian Herrera (aka Stinky Lulu, author of "Latin Numbers"), Mark Harris (author of "Five Came Back") Anne Marie Kelly (The Film Experience), Manuel Muñoz (author of "What You See in the Dark") Todd VanDerWerff (Vox), and your host Nathaniel R (The Film Experience). After reading their thoughts right here, there's a podcast to listen to wherein we discuss the films themselves as opposed to only the performances.
. And now it's time for the main event...
SUPPORTING ACTRESS SMACKDOWN
NINA FOCH as "Erica Martin" in Executive Suite
Synopsis: A CEO's secretary, reeling from her boss's sudden death, keeps her cool as executives scramble to fill his empty chair
Stats: Then 30 yrs old, 25th film, first and only nomination. 21 minutes of screen time (or 20% of running time).
Brian Herrera: Easily my favorite kind of Supporting Actress performance. One that evinces a complex emotional arc from a mere outline and then proceeds to act the Foch out of that character/arc, staying always at the edges of the screen’s central action. The way she clutches her stenographer’s pen as if it’s a crucifix? Yum. ♥♥♥♥♥
Mark Harris: This seems to be a case of winning a nomination for tasteful underplaying while surrounded by wild overemoting. As a loyal secretary holding her cards very close while mourning the sudden death of her boss, Foch doesn’t lose her cool even while trapped in a scenery-chomping contest. Executive Suite is an overwrought boardroom melodrama without much wit, and she has virtually nothing to play. But she’s appealingly watchful, and by the end, she’s the only character you want to know more about. ♥♥
Anne Marie Kelly: In a movie where Barbara Stanwyck constantly threatens suicide, June Allyson actually yells, and Shelly Winters vamps until she cries, how is it that Nina Foch got the nomination? Whatever the reason, Foch actually gives a solid, restrained performance. If, during the never-ending speeches about manufacturing, American ingenuity, and the soul of Corporate America, you're unclear of who to root for, watch how Nina Foch reacts to them. She delivers emotional stakes quietly in a movie full of loud overacting, and puts Frederic March in his place. ♥♥
Manuel Muñoz: Her loyal secretary seems a cliché at first, but Foch’s reserve teases out a marvelous ambiguity about Erica’s proximity to power. Is she privy to just as much insider information as any of the bigshots? Just as the questions start to build, she breaks down, only to turn a seeming moment of weakness into the resolve she needs for her brave, small denial to the manipulative Fredric March (her best scene). From overt (her staircase shadow) to near subliminal (that last, extinguished light in the building as the end credits run), the film admirably insists on her importance. To my surprise, her nearly wordless presence in the finale kept drawing my attention—and reminding me that this is exactly the kind of peripheral but vital presence that the supporting award was meant to honor. ♥♥♥♥♥
Todd VanDerWerff: While I enjoyed this movie, staginess and all, I can't quite fathom how Nina Foch ended up nominated from it. Yes, she's really good with what she's given, but in a movie with a number of at least interesting female performances, I'm a bit flummoxed with why she rose to the top. I think Oscar sometimes gets it in its head that "the women" or "the men" of a certain ensemble piece are really great in totale, but one has to be singled out. I'm guessing that's what happened with Foch here — she's standing in for the film's sometimes blinkered, always fascinating perspective on women in early 1950s America. ♥♥♥
Nathaniel R: Hypnotized by her pre-Joan Holloway pen necklace, I was. Everyone in this large ensemble is falling apart but Erica Martin is the only one that’s good at hiding it. Foch does so much with just her physicality, revealing utter competence, this office as an organic longtime part of her, and her feelings about each co-worker. And yet, she’s all business. That’s why it’s so riveting when her voice catches up to her expressive body in that amazing “those are the facts” face off. Chills. Sub-zero chills. ♥♥♥♥♥
Reader Write-Ins: "She delivers the most lived-in performance of this slate; that might not be saying much, but Foch is as comfortable and competent in her role and Erica is at her job." - Bennett P. (Reader average: ♥♥♥)
Actress earns 25 ❤s
KATY JURADO as "Señora Devereaux" in Broken Lance
Synopsis: The Native American wife of an Irish rancher tries to keep the peace between her husband and his boys, the youngest of which is her biological child
Stats: Then 30 yrs old, 28th film, first and only nomination. 17 minutes (or 18% of running time).
Brian Herrera: The role requires a mystical moral stolidity. An odd fit for Jurado, who’s best at serenely conveying roiling inner turmoil. But despite the performance’s discombobulating incongruities — that syrupy brownface makeup, that refined Mexico City accent, all that Navajo/Diné finery worn by a supposed Comanche “princess” — the palpable emotion of Jurado’s screen presence resonates memorably. ♥♥♥
Mark Harris: Sigh. This is not the first or the last time the Academy congratulated itself for taking a step forward, in this case with the first-ever acting nomination for a Latina performer. Jurado plays the Native American wife of Spencer Tracy, and has zip to do except urge her “hosebahnd” to reconcile with his sons. She has an interestingly somber, heavy-lidded, deep-voiced presence, but her delivery of the hamfisted dialogue is very flat, and the character is a sketchy archetype that gives her nothing to play but a really tired definition of “dignity” and “poise.” ♥
Anne Marie Kelly: Maybe because the characters in Broken Lance obsess over the idea of Senora Devearaux (or more accurately over her mixed-race marriage), the Academy mistook her for someone important. Broken Lance covers a lot of big themes about racism, family, and the hypocrisies of civil society, but unfortunately, the character best suited to speak about such themes is given little time to speak at all. Jurado could be a good screen presence - her work in High Noon shows just how good - but she's wasted here as the Silent Native American Princess archetype. ♥
Manuel Muñoz: Quoth Aretha Franklin on Taylor Swift, “Great gowns…beautiful gowns...” Except for a brief gleam of parental anger when she interjects among the fighting brothers, Jurado has so little to do except fuss with Spencer Tracy’s tie. On paper, her backstory promises a plethora of potentially dramatic situations, but she ends up being talked about rather than actually being allowed to participate in any meaningful way. Given her snub for High Noon, this was the Smackdown performance I had hoped would emerge as a triumphant rediscovery. A frustrating disappointment. ♥
Todd VanDerWerff: I love '50s Westerns, which pushed the established themes and character types of the format into downright Shakespearean territory. That's true of this film, with its King Lear echoes and its unusual (for the time) flashback structure. Jurado's work falls into the "supportive wife" type Oscar loves in this category. She's, again, fine, and it's great she was the first Latin-American woman nominated for an Oscar. But she's still playing a race (Native American) other than her own and playing a woman much older than her actual years — two unfortunate Hollywood trends that still haven't gone away. ♥♥
Nathaniel R: Jurado cuts a striking figure even buried in shawls and holds the camera well. That’s good news for the film which hasn’t written her anything to do beyond calming her hot tempered men— all the drama surrounding her racial identity, for instance, is played out in scenes when she’s not onscreen. That she feels emotionally commanding at all in scenes wherein she often has her head down (a defense against years of social umbrage?) and constantly saying ‘my husband my husband’ is a improbable trick. ♥♥♥
Reader Write-Ins: "There’s novelty here, but more in concept than execution. This isn’t my genre, but including a mother figure in a western at all felt odd, let alone as the younger half of a mixed-race second marriage, all of which the film treats seriously and sympathetically. A shame Jurado is largely asked to play peacemaker, wise council, and devotee" - Dave S. (Reader average: ♥♥)
Actress earns 13 ❤s
EVA MARIE SAINT as "Edie Doyle" in On the Waterfront
Synopsis: A young woman, whose brother has just been murdered, wants justice and begins to date a man who knows all too much about what happened.
Stats: Then 30 yrs old, debut film, first and only nomination (and win). 43 minutes (or 40% of the running time).
Brian Herrera: Saint’s luminous in this deservedly acclaimed, star-making role. Saint captures Edie’s guiding conflict, that collision of instinct and ideal. But it’s a lot of screentime, and not every scene offers as clarion a glimpse into Saint’s character as that legendary “glove scene” opposite Brando, where Saint never fails to take my breath away. ♥♥♥♥
Mark Harris: I remembered Saint as the weak link, but revisiting the movie, I was pleased to find that she absolutely holds her own. Her assignment may look easy—she’s “the girl”—but both keeping up with and staying out of the way of Brando as he was reinventing American screen acting must have been challenging. She makes smart choices—as the grieving sister of a murdered man, she holds onto her anger and sorrow throughout, where a lesser actress (or a lesser script) would have let love melt it away. The famous glove scene wouldn’t work without her sadness and tension. And when she finally smiles, it means something. ♥♥♥♥
Anne Marie Kelly: In a year full of the worst that the dying Studio System had to offer, On The Waterfront was a revelation of things to come. Eva Marie Saint's performance, overshadowed by discussions of Brando and Kazan and Bernstein, is tender, violent, and spontaneous. This doesn't always feel like a supporting performance. Edie's drive to find her brother's killer motivates the first half of the film, though the second half of the film belongs to Brando's Terry. I don't know that Saint was ever better. ♥♥♥♥
Manuel Muñoz: How different the lead actress race could have been had she been nominated in the proper category. In the beginning, her Edie is headstrong, rash, and surprisingly physical as she works to convince the men around her to stand up to the abuses evident around them all. Even at rest, her face in the early scenes is stern and resolved in her search for justice. She matches up wonderfully with Brando in the famous glove scene, ably translating apprehension, consideration, and relief in a seduction scene that ends up working both ways. The entire stage is ceded to Brando in the last third of the picture, but it’s still a lead performance. Oscar made the expected choice in a lopsided race but, for the Smackdown, I’m not a supporter of category fraud (hence four, not five hearts). ♥♥♥♥
Todd VanDerWerff: I always worry when revisiting a film classic that I won't be able to separate my feelings on an individual element from the film's established place in the pantheon. So while I really love Saint here and think she does a terrific job with a role that could have felt thankless, is that her actual work speaking, or the status the film holds in US cinematic history? I think it's the former, but it can be hard to tell. ♥♥♥♥
Nathaniel R: Imagine trying to hold your own with Brando at the top of his game in your first picture? To Saint’s credit and, more importantly, in keeping with Edie Doyle’s inner steel and unshakeable sense of justice, she never reads intimidated. Kazan was so good with actors and that surely helped her on camera debut. Maybe she could have leaned harder into grief as a baseline, given the plot, but she’s wonderful with spontaneous mercurial feeling, especially when paired with Brando’s beastly mystique. ♥♥♥♥
Reader Write-Ins: "Dominates the crowd scenes...as she started looking directly at Brando, her performance took hold. She really is the strongest secondary character." -Rob S (Reader average: ♥♥♥♥)
Actress earns 28 ❤s
JAN STERLING as "Sally McKee" in The High and the Mighty
Synopsis: A former popularity contest winner who has lied about her age fears rejection while flying to meet her pen pal fiancé.
Stats: Then 33 yrs old, 17th film, first and only nomination. 17 minutes (or 12% of running time).
Brian Herrera: A lovely, minor performance. Fully inhabited. Captivating, charismatic, and often quite adorable. Yet Sterling’s choice to play up the character’s neurotic fragilities overwhelms and obscures the scripted contradictions that seem ripe for the playing. Still, it seems one should never ever underestimate the formidable award-garnering power of taking off one’s makeup on camera. ♥
Mark Harris: Oh, brother. This movie. These performances. What the hell was going on at the Oscars this year?! This is a groaner of a film—the first all-star disaster movie and a basis for much of Airplane!—and Sterling is there to play a bruised, hardbitten, self-loathing blonde who thinks she’s destined for heartbreak. She clearly got this nomination for one big look-at-me-I’m-old-and-ugly scene in which she scrubs off all her makeup and the hideous truth is revealed (except that she looks fine). It’s so Oscars—a not-old, not-ugly woman rewarded for being “honest” enough to admit she’s old and ugly. Look how brave she is! See how vain she isn’t! ♥
Anne Marie Kelly: Of the two examples of typical supporting performances on display in this hammy disaster movie, Jan Sterling plays the showier type. The One Scene Wonder gets one large scene to show her chops. Sterling's scene arrives midway through. Despite the fact that she is blonde, gorgeous, and only thirty years old, her character spits out her bitter fear of aging while removing her makeup. She's pitiful in a kind of grotesque way. It's an Oscar bait cliche, but it mostly works. ♥♥
Manuel Muñoz: Her jello-on-springs intro, complete with leering sailors, goes a long way to helping set up a character who has suffered from the corrosive effects of both unwanted admiration and her vanity. True, once explained, her dilemma is ridiculous, but Sterling has an easier time merging her character’s internal anxiety with the fact that the damn plane is going down. When she finally drops the mask, it’s a genuinely startling moment in a movie that can barely hold any of its plotlines together. An unspectacular but sturdy performance that briefly threatened to make me take the film seriously. ♥♥♥
Todd VanDerWerff: Here's another film where the ensemble elements obviously resulted in certain players being elevated. But I liked Sterling's work quite a bit. It's obviously a bit hammy and campy, but it's definitely in keeping with the tone of the film, and I found her monologue about how she fears the man she loves will realize how deeply she lied to him quite affecting. There were other women I liked more in this very movie, but Sterling is just fine. ♥♥♥
Nathaniel R: I'd like to think that Sterling’s weaponization of her self-pity is a conscious choice - purposefully too much, a caged tiger hostility at the man beside her from a beautiful woman angry at her impending middle-age irrelevancy. But nothing in the movie runs that deep. Still… her aggressive makeup removal is a proto-deglam moment that she isn't treating as a gimmick but as a desperate character beat. It earns a bit of (cringey) sympathy at least and she plays fear better than most of her co-stars. ♥♥
Reader Write-Ins: "Does a lot with very little in her few scenes as an anxious catfishing pioneer, but it is undeniably very little.." - Nick T. (Reader average: ♥♥¾)
Actress earns 14¾ ❤s
CLAIRE TREVOR as "May Holst" in The High and the Mighty
Synopsis: An aging good time girl on a flight to San Francisco suddenly worries about lonely old age.
Stats: Then 44 yrs old, 59th film, third and final nomination. 13½ minutes of screen time (or 9% of running time).
Brian Herrera: Trevor’s giddy garishness — delivering nearly every line as if it were a toast (“Coney Island with Coconuts!”) — is both delicious and deft. Trevor plays May as a gal who knows how to work a room, subtly serving the film at every step. And the way she makes that mink into her tragic scene partner… ♥♥
Mark Harris: The contempt for women in this movie is astonishing. Trevor is great in dramas, but this is essentially a comic-relief role, she’s a loud, vulgar women stuck on a plane in a big blue party dress. And at the end, for no particular reason, the movie has to dismantle her: “There oughta be a home for people like me,” she sighs, “a house with no mirrors in it…the May Holtz home for broken-down broads.” I’m giving her an extra star because she’s Claire Trevor, goddammit, and she nails her compulsories like the pro she was. But come on. ♥♥
Anne Marie Kelly: As the Colorful Side Character, Claire Trevor delivers the other typical supporting performance in The High and the Mighty with a lot of personality and virtually nothing underneath. Trevor's boozy broad is designed for comic relief with occasional melancholy, but nobody can balance the jumble of tones that the movie smashes together. One star for being Claire Trevor, and one star for the way she throws her mink out of the airplane. ♥♥
Manuel Muñoz: There’s no denying that her leg-raising, fur-coat-tossing “broken-down broad” is just the brass and fizz that the film needs to be bearable. Her sly, predatory smirk as she considers a fellow passenger promises good, campy fun, but once the high drama starts, both the character and the performance are incomprehensible. She gives her big monologue a good try, but it’s an airless, joyless delivery of a misstep in the script—she looks like she resents it. Had Trevor been allowed to play only blasé and bemused, she would have been an odd passenger for sure, but far more credible, intriguing, and nomination-worthy. ♥♥
Todd VanDerWerff: I went back and forth on this performance. Her big, dramatic moments fell hollow to me, but when she's basically Auntie Mame bopping around on a doomed airliner, I'm much more into whatever it is she's doing. Still, I should mention that I was more into the work of Doe Avedon, as a sometimes sarcastic, sometimes sweet flight attendant, and Laraine Day as an embittered wife who has a change of heart. The roles in this movie are all types, but those women elevate the types they're handed. ♥♥
Nathaniel R: You can always count on Trevor to pop in a movie but this role is so beneath her. It’s hard to imagine she wasn’t bored as hell while filming. Even scenes which involve her, like a silly fight between two men, barely make room for her. The visual of her fur coat tossing in blue party dress is fun but that’s literally it for impact. Her big clip scene (and “big” is a generous word for the scene and a too apt description of her choices in it) comes from nowhere; she doesn’t rescue it. ♥
Reader Write-Ins: "The lady gives good face. In her first scene on the plane, scrubbing the lipstick off her teeth, she delivers not a single line, and then gives the most perfectly composed, yet lascivious, look as she spots the silver fox airline executive across the aisle." - Travis K. (Reader average: ♥¾)
Actress earns 12¾ ❤s
The Oscar Went To... Eva Marie Saint
And the Smackdown, while thankful that Nina Foch was in the room, seconds the motion.
Would you have chosen similarly?
Want more? The companion podcast is up!
For context of the year we also looked back at Broken Lance's racial drama, the B pleasures of The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Life Magazine's view of the Best Actress race, Audrey's suitors in Sabrina, the very big year of Grace Kelly, Ingrid Bergman's Journey to Italy, the creation of Audrey Hepburn's Style, Federico Fellini's La Strada, looked at 3 animated oddities, heard what the year meant to the panelists and compiled a list of various vintage pleasures.
NEXT UP: We're doing 1963 on September 27th as the season finale so get to watching Tom Jones, Lilies of the Field and The V.I.P.s. the fewest films ever nominated in the category. You know you have time to watch all three and join us in the Smackdowning.