Grace Kelly (The Country Girl)
The Nominees: Dorothy Dandridge (Carmen Jones), Judy Garland (A Star is Born), Audrey Hepburn (Sabrina), Jane Wyman (Magnificent Obession)
Judy Garland (A Star is Born)
My Nominees: Grace Kelly (Dial M for Murder), Grace Kelly (Rear Window), Debbie Reynolds (Susan Slept Here)
The story goes that on the night of the 27th Annual Academy Awards, Judy Garland - who was nominated for her performance in A Star is Born - was in the hospital having given birth to her son Joey. Television cameras had been set up in her room so that she could give her acceptance speech if she won. When Grace Kelly was unexpectedly declared the winner, the crews immediately dismantled their equipment and cleared the room without either a word of comfort nor even congratulations on her loss or even on the birth of her son.
In a way, that sort of defines how Judy Garland was treated by the industry for most of her life. She had been a child actor, the youngest member of The Gumm Sisters kiddie act when she was a young child, billed as "The little girl with the great big voice". In her teens she would find herself under contract to MGM and under the thumb of the bullish studio boss Louis B. Mayer. She became a movie star in the series of Andy Hardy pictures and found her legacy at 17 in The Wizard of Oz.
The studio bosses worked her day and night, giving her drugs to put her to sleep at night and drugs to wake her up in the morning. The image-conscious publicity department hounded her about her appearance and her weight while she was already deeply insecure about these things in the first place.
By 1950, the pills had turned to an addiction and it was beginning to affect her work. After a disastrous shoot on Annie Get Your Gun, MGM deemed her unmanageable and fired her. No one seemed to care that her distractions at work came from the fact that she had recently broken off her relationship with husband Vincent Minnelli and then suffered a nervous breakdown which led to her attempted suicide.
When MGM dismissed her in 1950, it was the first time since 1934 that she was without studio support. She went on the stage and had a successful tour for the next four years and when she came back to Hollywood it was on her own terms. She formed her own production company and began, with the help of her new husband Sid Luft, to put together a remake of the Janet Gaynor classic A Star is Born. The end result wasn't met with great support, as exhibitors complained when the film ran over three hours, a running time that Warner Bros. executives demanded cut by at least 30 minutes. Those cuts took the guts out of the film and studio boss Jack Warner decided not to sink a single dime into promotion. The film flopped at the box office.
In spite of the box office failure, most were certain that Judy would win the Oscar for her performance. The movie showed that, despite her personal problems, she was still a powerhouse performer. When she lost the Oscar, most were outraged. Groucho Marx called it, "The biggest robbery since Brinks!"
The surprise winner for Best Actress was Grace Kelly in George Seaton's depressing, joyless backstage snoozer The Country Girl. Pried from a play by Clifford Odets, it tells the story of a washed-up alcoholic showman Frank Elgin (Bing Crosby) who is given the opportunity to revive his career through the efforts of director Bernie Dodd (William Holden) who puts his reputation on the line to help him and then spends the rest of the movie shouting at him. In the middle of these shouting matches comes Grace Kelly (unattractive and dowdy), who plays Crosby's long-suffering wife Georgie who crabs at the director while he crabs at her husband.
Grace Kelly was a luminous presence in the movies, beautiful, intelligent, and talented. Yet in the year of her double success with Hitchcock, Dial M for Murder and Rear Window, the academy gave her an Oscar for one of the least impressive performances of her entire career. Perhaps the academy was giving her credit for taking an unglamorous role - she wore thick glasses and little makeup - but I cannot understand why they were not willing to welcome back Judy Garland for, arguably, the best performance of her career.
Garland is wonderful in the role of the unfortunately named Esther Blodgett, a small-time showgirl with a band who has a great big voice and an amazing stage presence. During a show one night, a drunken actor stumbles out and begins to imitate the dancers. Esther improvises and dances him offstage. The man is Norman Maine (James Mason), once a box office champ whose star has begun to fall due to his age, his carousing and his alcoholism. Even while intoxicated, he charms Esther, using her lipstick to draw their initials on the wall in the middle of a heart.
Later, having sobered a bit, he sees her in a club singing "The Man that Got Away." He's charmed by her stage presence and introduces himself. Something in his eyes tells Esther that this isn't a pass or a glib compliment; there is sincerity in his voice. This is the thing that will stay with her all through the remainder of their relationship. What he sees in her is a woman who is a born performer, a woman who is emotionally generous and someone who will not judge him.
Using what little pull he has left with the studio, Norman gets Esther a contract with a studio and her career takes off. The studio puts her through the rigorous beautifying ritual including wigs, a false nose, a false chin and a new name, Vicky Lester. Amused by the studio meddling, Norman removes all the applications and the putty but leaves the name.
The romance blooms and they get married in private, under an assumed name. Esther's career takes off and she becomes a star almost overnight. Meanwhile, Norman's career is rapidly deteriorating, his contacts want nothing to do with him, the studio won't hire him and he is made to look like a heel. He begins to realize, very quickly, that all he really has in the world is Esther's support. She refuses to devalue him even when a drunken incident lands him in jail. Deep down inside, Esther knows that Norman is the reason for her success and she knows he still loves her. There is never a moment when the two have a screaming match (though we expect it), she knows his faults and won't devalue his support of her even after he stumbles drunk onstage during The Academy Awards after Esther wins an Oscar and ruins her moment. All those around Norman have given up but Esther stays by him.
There is a spark in their relationship, we know they love one another and the film doesn't shy away from all the reasons. We feel the romance between them. That's especially true of a brilliant scene in which Esther shows Norman the production number she's been working on, an around-the-world number called "Born in a Trunk" as she dances around their apartment practically using every object - the couch, the chair, the lamp - as a prop. There is a vibrant joy and energy and the smile on Norman's face is real. There are moments when Esther performs (and she exudes effortless joy) that Norman sits back and simply smiles, admiring her.
The ending is one of the saddest, most touching that I can remember. After having spent time in jail, Norman knows that he will continue to be an albatross around Esther's neck. He decides to end it all and walks into the ocean and dies. The papers the next day report that it was an accident and a heartbroken Esther still stands up for him. Returning to the stage, she tearfully tells a waiting crowd, "This is Mrs. Norman Maine!"
Judy Garland had an ease on screen, she had a wonderful screen presence that made you believe she was having as much fun performing as you did watching her. A Star is Born showed that even after all of her real life problems, she was still a brilliant actress. It makes me sad the film under-performed because it kept her away from the screen for another six years until a surprisingly good performance in Judgment at Nuremberg (and another acting nomination). But who knows where the success of this film may have taken her? We'll never know.