Tuesday, 10 May 2011

On Any Other Year: The 1951 Battle for Best Actress

The performances of Bette Davis in All About Eve and Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd. have been drawing comparisons for all of the 60 years since the films were released. Two classic films, each focussing on ageing actresses desperately trying to cling to former glories, make the parallels impossible to avoid. In reality, however, the performances were very different. The jealous outbursts of Margo in All About Eve have little in common, character-wise, with the dangerously deluded Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd. Their eventual fate demonstrates this; Margo eventually reclaims her dignity, Norma Desmond only reclaims the illusion of dignity.

Where the two performances should draw parallels is in their brilliance. Some found Swanson's performance to be over-the-top but in the case of Sunset Blvd. it was perfectly fitting. A once-glorious and adored silent movie actress, used to over-annunciated and exaggerated gestures, Swanson's portrayal of Norma Desmond is exactly how I'd expect such an actress to behave. The same goes for Bette Davis in All About Eve; witty and talented, she is used to being adored. The transformation of Margo as Anne Baxter's Eve has an ever-increasing influence on her life is remarkable. Davis is brilliant early on as the effortlessly cool diva, but her increasingly confrontational style as her jealousy towards Eve grows is even better.

But enough about these two performances. They didn't win the Oscar after all. Anna Baxter also lost out for the titular role in All About Eve. She had proved more than a match for Bette Davis in the film, evolving from the picture of sweetness and innocence to a conniving and ruthless manipulator with remarkable and wholly believable skill. In fact, one could argue, if they had not effectively split each other's votes by appearing in the same film, either one of them would have deservedly walked away with the top prize.

They didn't, however. The honour went to Judy Holliday for her performance in Born Yesterday. It is a fine performance, with Holliday playing a former showgirl being educated to fit in with high society. At most Academy Awards in the era she would have won the Oscar easily but, of the four actresses, her role is perhaps the least well remembered. That is not because there was anything wrong with it, on the contrary, but because this was a particularly fine year for female actresses and time would look more favourably on All About Eve and Sunset Blvd. (though Born Yesterday is still a very good film).

If I were to choose a winner now I would probably go for Bette Davis, though her cause wasn't helped by the fact she had already won two Oscars at this point and been nominated many times. Baxter also had an Oscar to her name, though Swanson would never win, with this being her final nomination. All the roles have gone down in history, however, and this remains one of the strongest years for the Best Actress category in history.

On Any Other Year will return next time to examine the Best Actress category once more. This time, the focus will be on 1952, and Vivien Leigh's performance in A Streetcar Named Desire going up against Katharine Hepburn in The African Queen.

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