Thursday, October 18, 2007

My favorite also-ran

(Aaaargh: after getting some very nice comments, I discovered that I had a faulty list of years -- it had listed her films by the year they competed in the Oscars rather than the year they were released -- so that, when I went back to see who she lost to, the competition was mismatched.
Edits are in italics.)

When I heard today that Deborah Kerr had died, my reaction was "damn." Deborah Kerr was one of those actors who just seemed to pop up in a whole lot of really good movies. She was also in some not really good movies that were a whole lot of fun, too.

One of my early favorites was "Beloved Infidel," in which she played Sheilah Graham to Gregory Peck's F. Scott Fitzgerald. It was a fairly faithful rendering of Graham's self-serving, ahistorical memoir. But I saw it at a time when I was just getting into the concept of being a writer, and was still several years away from finding out what Scott was like, what Zelda was like and what Sheilah was like. Ah, the magic of Hollywood!

She also played the romantic lead opposite Stewart Granger in "Prisoner of Zenda," the lifeless remake of the much better original that starred Ronald Colman and Madeleine Carroll. Madeleine who? Oh, never mind. The real flaw was that they cast James Mason as Rupert of Hentzau, the wonderful villain earlier played by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., then had to speed up the film to make the fencing sequences look exciting. Should have sped up the whole film -- Every single actor in this movie appeared in something much, much better.

Certainly, Deborah Kerr appeared in many films better than those two. But somehow she managed to set an Oscar record -- the most nominations for Best Actress without a win (6). For the most part, it was bad timing.

Take a look:

1949 (not 1950)
Edward, My Son

Okay, I haven't seen this one, but she starred opposite Spencer Tracy, so it must have been pretty good. However, the award went to ... Judy Holliday for "Born Yesterday." Talk about being nominated in the wrong year! If they gave out Academy Awards by decade, Judy Holliday would have deserved that one.

1953 (not 1954)
From Here to Eternity

And the winner is ... Grace Kelly for "The Country Girl." I think she might have reason to be bitter over this one, because the scene above is a classic of Hollywood filmography. But that's one scene in a long movie, and Kelly was the Golden Girl. There's always next year.

Well, here's a distinction without a difference: She lost to Audrey Hepburn in "Roman Holiday." Hepburn did some nice work, of course, and there could be a more interesting argument over this one. For my part, I think "From Here to Eternity" had a bit more meat to it, and, comparing the two roles, involved more heavy lifting.

1956 (Not 1957)
The King and I

You would think if there were a role that screamed "Oscar!" it would be this one. I mean, if "My Fair Lady" could pick off eight Oscars, you'd think Kerr could win for "The King and I"? After all, Marni Nixon sang the lead in both films! And it was a fun film with quotable lines, singable songs and terrific costuming. Isn't that the sort of thing that wins Oscars by the bushel basket?

And the winner is ... Joanna Woodward for "The Three Faces of Eve."

Maybe they need more categories. That's hardly fair.

She lost to Ingrid Bergman in "Anastasia." I'd have rather lost to Woodward. Bergman was great, and this was a good flick, but it wasn't her best work, and you could do a whole other post about the roles Bergman won for versus the ones she was nominated for.

Incidentally, Yul Brynner was in both "Anastasia" and "The King and I." He took home "Best Actor" for ... "The King and I." It is a puzzlement.

But speaking of "wait until next year ... " we are now getting into what must have been an absolutely agonizing phase. Watch the dates as we go along.

This was such an entertaining concept: Bad boy Robert Mitchum on a desert island with Deborah Kerr, not only a beautiful British ice queen, but a nun! Plus it was patriotic and exciting ... how could it miss?

And the winner is ... Susan Hayward for "I Want to Live."

Okay, this one is a ripoff. I've seen both movies, and Hayward was getting a lifetime achievement award, just as John Wayne got when he won Best Actor for "True Grit." I love Susan Hayward, but if this was her breakthrough role, she didn't ever break through.

(This is the one she lost to Joanna Woodward. No argument -- Wrong place, wrong time.)

So, wait until next year ...

1958 (not 1959)
Separate Tables

Now, here's a serious role. They can't deny her this time!

And the winner is ... Simone Signoret for "Room at the Top." And that, by golly, was a very serious role.

(THIS is the one she lost to Susan Hayward. That really compounds the sleight.)

Hey, there will be other chances.

1960 (Not 1961)
The Sundowners

I won't defend this one. They reunited her with Bobby Mitchum again, but it's no favor. The idea of either of them as Aussies was unconvincing at best. I have had chances to see this movie and haven't gotten through it yet. It's got its fans, but putting it up for five Oscars was, I think, a stretch. And, anyway, she could have put on the performance of a lifetime, because she was up against a juggernaut.

And the winner is ... Sophia Loren for "Two Women."

Not gonna win that one, no matter what you turn in.

(And you could repeat that for the actual winner -- Elizabeth Taylor for "Butterfield 8," though I think Loren worked harder for hers. However, either is a buzzsaw, and "The Sundowners" wasn't in the same weight class as either film.)

Finally, in 1994, the Academy gave her a special award, and I think it was well-deserved for someone who showed up and, whatever the quality of the material she was given, turned in a good, and sometimes an inspired, performance.

There's no moral here, no fine philosophical point to be made. Well, except that I have always thought that awards were pretty stupid. The regional writing awards I've won were for relatively ho-hum work, while the stuff I was proud of got nothing. I imagine, out there on the international stage, that a lot of actors feel the same way.

Deborah Kerr had very good reason to feel that way.

Ah, well. As Bob Dylan said in "Don't Look Back," "Applause is kind of bullshit."

Not a word I would expect to hear coming from Deborah Kerr, mind you, but she might have thought it a few times on Oscar night.


Gabe said...

I liked your comments on all the movies but, if you're arguing about how often you see the "From Here to Eternity" scene, wouldn't the nod go to the wave?

Sherwood Harrington said...

What a magnificently crafted blog entry, Mike.

However, I do have to take you to task for making it so interesting that I didn't have enough time left before my next class to write as fine an exam as I had wanted to. If my students complain, I'll tell them, "Please believe me; count your blessings."

Nostalgic for the Pleistocene said...

Well, OK then, i won't applaud it. But this really is a great tribute.

Sherwood Harrington said...



You know what? It's even better now, and not because the petty fact-stuff is corrected.

Now it's not just about some actress none of us has met. It's about Mike Peterson, too.


Nostalgic for the Pleistocene said...

No change in my opinion - the corrections support the point just as well! Nicely done.