By Alan Hurst
As we’ve said before, sometimes the Oscars get it very right, and sometimes they miss the mark. With the advantage of hindsight, here is a look back at the Best Actress Oscars awarded during the fifties – the winners, the should have been winners, and some alternate nominees. These are always fun exercises because for the time it takes to write and read the article, you can correct the fact that Judy Garland, Doris Day and Marilyn Monroe never won an Oscar.
1950: Bette Davis in All About Eve
1950 was probably the most competitive year in Oscar history for Best Actress. You had Bette Davis in All About Eve and Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard giving not only the best performances of their careers, but these are two performances for the ages. So, who do you give it to? Neither – the Academy that year decided newcomer Judy Holliday gave the year’s best female performance for her work in Born Yesterday, a lovely comedic performance that allowed Holliday to recreate her Broadway success on screen. As good as she is, this isn’t in the same league as the impact that Davis and Swanson had. This is the classic case of two equally worthy performances splitting the vote – and Davis probably losing some votes to Anne Baxter, her All About Eve co-star and fellow nominee – allowing a third winner to emerge. I go back and forth as to who I would have picked but ultimately my vote would have gone to Davis. Her Margo Channing is a wonderful creation – smart, funny, vane, insecure and just egocentric enough to be fascinating rather than annoying. The other nominee that year was Eleanor Parker for Caged, a strong performance in a great and underappreciated Warner Brothers prison drama.
1951: Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire
Another strong year for female performances with nominations going to Katharine Hepburn for The African Queen, Vivien Leigh for A Streetcar Named Desire, Jane Wyman for The Blue Veil, Eleanor Parker for Detective Story and Shelley Winters for A Place in the Sun. This is a year when I have no problem with the Academy’s choice – Vivien Leigh. Her Blanche DuBois is a great performance, probably the best interpretation of the character on film (although Ann-Margret’s performance in the 1984 TV version comes close). For whatever reason, the very British Leigh excelled at playing southern characters and the neurotic energy that was increasingly part of her personality in real life is a perfect match for Blanche. She is a riveting presence and holds her own – and then some – with Marlon Brando’s iconic work as Stanley. If Leigh wasn’t in the running that year, Hepburn would have been my choice for her beautifully nuanced spinster who finds love with Humphrey Bogart in the jungles of Africa. I would have also liked to see Elizabeth Taylor in the running for A Place in the Sun, instead of Shelley Winters. Winters was excellent, but it was a supporting role and she’s absent for much of the film. Taylor is breathtaking in this.
1952: Lana Turner in The Bad and the Beautiful
An interesting year with several good performances by women in the running – Shirley Booth for Come Back Little Sheba, Joan Crawford for Sudden Fear, Bette Davis for The Star, Julie Harris for Member of the Wedding, and Susan Hayward for With a Song in My Heart. These are all decent performances and Booth was the eventual winner for recreating her award-winning stage performance as the downtrodden wife of alcoholic Burt Lancaster. Booth was a wonderful actress, winning multiple Tony Awards for her stage work and Emmys for her work in the sitcom Hazel (1961-66). Come Back Little Sheba is a good vehicle for her, but it feels very much like a filmed play and Booth’s character can be grating. My choice that year would have been either Lana Turner for The Bad and the Beautiful or Maureen O’Hara for The Quiet Man, with Turner probably getting the win. The Bad and the Beautiful is Turner’s finest screen work. It’s an emotional, over-the-top performance where she plays a character very close to herself – a limited actress with a talent for picking the wrong guy. Director Vincente Minnelli clearly had a way with Turner. With his help she creates a real and believable character and her climactic breakdown scene, although hysterical, is spectacular.
1953: Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday
Another year they got it right with the award to Audrey Hepburn in the charming Roman Holiday. Hepburn had a Broadway success in Gigi (1951) and few film roles under her belt when William Wyler cast her as Anne, a princess who is feeling confined by the duties of royal life. While in the midst of a royal tour, Anne decides to sneak out during a stopover in Rome, eventually meeting a reporter (Gregory Peck) who agrees to show her around, while concealing the fact he is a reporter so he can get the scoop of his career. Hepburn is enchanting in the role – with her manner and bearing, you really believe she has been raised as a princess and you can feel her frustration at the confines of her life and her growth as she experiences Rome. There’s no question this is the performance of the year. If Hepburn hadn’t won, it probably would have gone to Ava Gardner for her sultry, winning work in John Ford’s Mogambo. Other nominees that year included Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity, Leslie Caron for Lili and Maggie McNamara for The Moon is Blue, a film that pushed the envelope in terms of the production code but with an annoying central performance by McNamara. The other nominee that year should have been Doris Day for Calamity Jane.
1954: Judy Garland in A Star Is Born
This is the year that saw what many acknowledge as the biggest oversight in Oscar history. Many felt at the time – and still feel – that the Oscar was predestined for Judy Garland for her work in A Star Is Born, but it went to Grace Kelly for The Country Girl. Kelly was the new “big thing” in films at the time and she had a big year in 1954, coming off a supporting actress nomination for Mogambo (1953) and starring in the hits Rear Window, Dial “M” for Murder (both by director Alfred Hitchcock) and The Bridges of Toko Ri. She’s downplays the glamour in The Country Girl, where she plays the wife of an alcoholic actor, and she’s good. Not great, just good. I think she was much better in both Rear Window and the following year’s To Catch a Thief. Garland, on the other hand, is astonishing in A Star Is Born. It’s a film that packs a huge emotional punch and that’s entirely due to Garland and co-star James Mason. The film provided Garland with a showcase so far beyond what she had enjoyed before that the impact is staggering. There’s not a false note in her touching and emotional work here. The other nominees that year – all deserving – didn’t have a chance. They included Jane Wyman for Magnificent Obsession (one of Douglas Sirk’s perfect melodramas), Audrey Hepburn for Billy Wilder’s witty Sabrina, and Dorothy Dandridge in the wonderful Carmen Jones.
1955: Doris Day in Love Me or Leave Me
Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tattoo was a hit on Broadway in the early fifties and won a Tony for Maureen Stapleton. The part was originally written for Italian actress Anna Magnani but she didn’t feel her English was up to the task. When it was filmed in 1955, Magnani was cast in the lead and won that year’s Best Actress Oscar. She gives a very good performance in one of Williams’ lesser works, capturing both the character’s pride and devastation. She definitely deserved a place among the year’s nominees, but this is the year that also saw Doris Day establish herself as a capable dramatic actress with Love Me or Leave Me and I think she deserved that year’s Oscar, but there wasn’t even a nomination. This represented a real breakthrough for Day and she owns the role of the ambitious and slyly manipulative Ruth Etting who uses others to get to the top. This performance eliminates any question about Day’s acting being as good as her singing and this film provides Day the singer with a spectacular showcase. This was another competitive year – also in the running were Susan Hayward for terrific work as Lillian Roth in I’ll Cry Tomorrow, Katharine Hepburn in David Lean’s beautiful Summertime, Jennifer Jones in the beautiful but melodramatic Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, and Eleanor Parker as opera singer Marjorie Lawrence in Interrupted Melody.
1956: Marilyn Monroe in Bus Stop
It was mea culpa time at the Oscars in 1956 when Hollywood atoned for it’s ostracizing of Ingrid Bergman during her extra-marital affair with Roberto Rossellini in the late forties. Bergman was named that year’s Best Actress for Anastasia, a beautifully mounted tale that considers whether one of Czar Nicholas’ daughters survived the family execution in 1918. Bergman is very good as Anna and it’s great to see her back in a top tier Hollywood production after an absence of eight years. But there was another performance that year in a major hit that unfortunately was ignored when Oscar nominations were announced: Marilyn Monroe in Bus Stop. I think this is the best performance of Monroe’s career – she gets to be funny, sexy, angry, vulnerable and she digs deeper into the character of Cherie then she was ever able to before. For a sense of how far she had come as an actress compare this to her two-dimensional (but still riveting) work in Niagara (1953). Monroe didn’t get too many good chances, but this was one of them and she’s perfect. Among the other nominees, there’s also a case to be made for Katharine Hepburn in The Rainmaker, one of her great mid-career performances. Other nominees that year were Deborah Kerr in The King and I, Carroll Baker in Baby Doll, and Nancy Kelly in The Bad Seed. The latter is a creepy film adaptation of a hit play that has taken on a camp quality thanks to the over pitched work of Kelly and Patty McCormack as her murderous daughter. What may have been dramatic in 1956 is now so over-the-top that its funny. The fact that Kelly made the list instead of Monroe or Elizabeth Taylor in Giant is a bit of a head scratcher.
1957: Deborah Kerr in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison
If it were up to me, this would have been the year that Deborah Kerr finally got recognition from Oscar for her performance in John Huston’s wonderful Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison. She plays a nun stranded on a south seas island during WWII, hiding from the Japanese. Robert Mitchum is an American marine adrift at sea after an attack who also lands on the island. Both actors give two of their finest performances and the interplay between them is both chaste and sexy as they realize their attraction will never be acted upon. Kerr was nominated but lost to the tour-de-force of Joanne Woodward in the The Three Faces of Eve, a showy role about a woman with split personalities. Woodward’s intense performance was shocking at the time and, although she’s good, I think she just pushes everything too far. There isn’t a lot of nuance in her work (but that wouldn’t be the case with later successes like Rachel, Rachel in 1968 and Mr. and Mrs. Bridge in 1990). Other nominees that year were Elizabeth Taylor for Raintree County, Lana Turner for Peyton Place and Anna Magnani for Wild is the Wind. I think Marlene Dietrich should have been there in place of Magnani for one of her best performance in Witness for the Prosecution.
1958: Susan Hayward in I Want to Live!
Another year that Oscar got it right. Susan Hayward finally won her Oscar in 1958 for I Want to Live!, the true story of convicted murderer Barbara Graham and her fight to avoid the gas chamber. Hayward was a good dramatic actresses and she excelled with the right material and director. I Want to Live! was the best part she ever had, and Robert Wise was probably the best director she ever worked with. She doesn’t make this character likable, but she makes you care and the last part of the film is truly harrowing. Also doing outstanding work that year were fellow nominees Elizabeth Taylor in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Shirley MacLaine in Some Came Running, and Rosalind Russell as the indefatigable Auntie Mame. Deborah Kerr was also back in the running for Separate Tables, but I don’t think this is one of her stronger performances. I would have preferred to see Kim Novak for Vertigo, Ingrid Bergman for Inn of the Sixth Happiness or Leslie Caron for Gigi on the list.
1959: Elizabeth Taylor in Suddenly Last Summer
This was a year of another of Oscar’s major missteps. Simone Signoret, an acclaimed French actress, was the winner for the British drama Room at the Top. It’s the story of a social climber (Laurence Harvey) who falls in love with an older married woman but craves the life that the daughter of his boss can provide. It was a major hit primarily because of the adult content and Signoret is very good as the older woman, but it’s not a film or performance that still has the same impact. Much stronger – and more deserving – was Elizabeth Taylor in the macabre Suddenly Last Summer. The film, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, is an intense mixture of psychiatry, homosexuality, cannibalism, greed – heady stuff for audiences in 1959. Katharine Hepburn is very good as the aunt, but Taylor is an emotional hurricane as Catherine. Her climatic speech detailing what she knows and what she has seen is emotionally exhausting. Nothing Taylor had done previously indicated she was capable of this kind of intensity. Other nominees that year included Katharine Hepburn, Doris Day in the comedy Pillow Talk, and Audrey Hepburn in the somber drama The Nun’s Story. I would like to have seen Marilyn Monroe acknowledged for her work in Some Like It Hot as well, probably in place of the nomination for Signoret.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.