Thursday, February 04, 2016

OVP: The Actress (1953)

Film: The Actress (1953)
Stars: Spencer Tracy, Jean Simmons, Teresa Wright, Anthony Perkins
Director: George Cukor
Oscar History: 1 nomination (Best Costume Design)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 3/5 stars

You may not have realized this because I haven't said anything and we're already four days into the festival, but the Turner Classic Movies' 31 Days of Oscar is one of my most hallowed Academy Awards traditions.  Every year like clockwork I make my list of all of the missing OVP films that Netflix/the studios (it's case-by-case on whom to blame there) haven't released on DVD and that I can't get delivered to my apartment, and though I always have failed, I try my darndest to keep up with the rigorous schedule.  This year I have no illusions that it will be a challenge, but my goal is to not have any of the (100 or so-eek!) movies that are on my DVR slip quietly into the night without either seeing them or finding a different way to get my hands on them while I make room for the new (100 or so-double eek!) movies that TCM is throwing down my pipe.  That is how we chance upon this little-discussed Jean Simmons dramedy from the early 1950's based on the life of future Oscar-winner Ruth Gordon.  I'm hoping you enjoy obscure film reviews (I know I do) because the blog is going to be filling up with them pretty darn fast over the next few weeks.

(Spoilers Ahead) The film, as I mentioned, is based on the very early life of Ruth Gordon, long before she became a great writer (even penning Spencer Tracy's classic Adam's Rib) and become the antichrist's wet nurse (if you don't get that reference you really need to see more movies).  The film follows her as she has a domineering father (Tracy) and a doting but troubled mother (Wright-and I cannot believe that they managed to make Teresa Wright look so believably old in this film despite only being about 35-kudos to the makeup and hair team) and tries to convince them to support her love of acting and quest to become a great star on the stage.  Her father wants her to do something more practical, like become a gym teacher, while her mother wants her to get married to her nice boyfriend Fred (Perkins, in his screen debut).  But Ruth wants to act, and is willing to go to great lengths and make great sacrifices to get there.

The interesting thing about The Actress is where it was positioned in Ruth Gordon's actual career and the way that sort of reflects the bitter anguish of the film (the ending of the movie has Tracy forced to sell his beloved spyglass after losing his job but still wanting to send his daughter to New York City to pursue her dream).  While Gordon would have some success earlier in her career (most notably playing Mary Todd Lincoln opposite Raymond Massey in Abe Lincoln in Illinois), it wasn't until after The Actress that she actually made her biggest impact in the cinema, eventually in the late 1960's (when most actresses would be in their twilight years) winning an Oscar for Rosemary's Baby, another nomination for Inside Daisy Clover, and legions of fans as Maude Chardin in the beloved Harold and Maude.  In 1953, Gordon's career had been a success not as an actress, but as a writer, winning three Oscar nominations and writing several of the classic Tracy-Hepburn films.

This adds an extra level to what Jean Simmons is doing as her Ruth, because we assume that she actually won't get to be Hazel Dawn, her idol, and instead will have to settle for a different vocation, one that may bring her even more joy and would allow for her to find the love of her life, but isn't the dream that she wanted for herself as a child.  Simmons plays the part excellently, perhaps the first time I've ever really gravitated toward her in a film (before I'd kind of gotten a "stodgy" vibe from the actress).  I love the way that her confidence exceeds her ability, and the way that she has written so many plays and acts for herself-her greatest part is herself, which is a meta-joke considering Gordon wrote this particular film about herself.  Tracy and Wright are both fine as her parents, though Tracy could probably do this part in his sleep and doesn't get the wit that he had in some of his other collaborations with Cukor and Gordon (this is more bluster).  All-in-all, a good film made more interesting by the back story.  And the costumes were a nice touch, even if there isn't really anything particularly special going on aside from putting Jean Simmons in a parade of bows and hats (though if you've ever wanted to see Norman Bates unironically sporting a fur coat that feels like it's straight out of Liberace's closet, you cannot pass this movie up).  The rest of the costume work is a series of too-fashionable dresses that feel well outside of the budget of Ruth, particularly with her penny-pinching father.  Random trivia about the nomination, though: Walter Plunkett was nominated twice that year for outfitting Jean Simmons, also gaining a citation for Young Bess.  He ended up losing, however, to Edith Head with Roman Holiday-clearly Plunkett should have gone with Audrey Hepburn.

Those are my thoughts on the film.  What about you-has anyone seen The Actress, and wants to weigh in on its quality and costumes?  If not, what about Ruth Gordon and Jean Simmons, both big actresses in their days who have gotten a little lost in the pop culture shuffle?  Share your thoughts in the comments!

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