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  • James Kunovski

On the 1950 Best Actress Race…

Mild spoilers apply

The contentious Best Actress race of 1950 dishes a delicious nugget on Oscar history while spotlighting five incredible performances. Judy Holliday won the Oscar for her charming turn in Born Yesterday, beating out Anne Baxter and Bette Davis in All About Eve, Eleanor Parker in Caged and Gloria Swanson for Sunset Boulevard.

An insolent tycoon’s endearingly brassy girlfriend, an aspiring actress with ulterior motives, a sarcastically witty theatre veteran, a naive prisoner and a disillusioned silent screen legend itching for a comeback form this quintet. It is always cliched when the debonair presenter suggests a five-way tie, though you can’t deny that would have certainly settled the debate. Though Holliday clinched the gold over two acting giants, Swanson and Davis, labelling it an “upset” makes me slightly squirm. The three-horse race could have, and should have gone any which way. So, without the questioning of “how” this came to be, I’ll put myself in voters’ shoes and fill out my ballot.

Baxter’s Eve Harrington infiltrates Channing’s circle of loyal theatre friends with quiet prowess and an agenda hidden beneath an ingenue act and soft-spoken faux modesty. At first glance, she is the centre of attention, and the bitingly witty Channing and co. gush over her very being. She’s made an impact, but sandwiched between a troupe of show-stealing thespians (who we’ve also just met) and the to-and-fro volleyball dialogue, our titular character is promptly overshadowed. Her exploits will greatly influence the next two-and-a-bit hours, though most of the time, Eve’s greatest impacts are felt when she’s not on-screen. This doesn’t offer Baxter many favours — she mostly plays Eve with a mature breathiness and a poker face that doesn’t intend on revealing too many inclinations. Baxter is deserving of the applause rounded out to All About Eve’s ensemble — competing, on the other hand, amongst a sea of roaring actresses is a little trickier.

Parker pulls off a spellbinding performance as Marie Allen, a young and naive widow who, as an accessory to robbery, is admitted to a woman’s prison. Parker could be the melodramatic lead with the stretched frown, but the climate chips her into something more dashing and despairing; a performance wrapped in vulnerability and pain. Played at a relatively careful and modest speed, acting the part of a hardened prisoner is just a fraction of what makes this turn worthy of praise — her crumbling composure in the face of isolation and tyranny is another. Here is a tour-de-force spree of innocence, emotion and mistrust amongst fellow Best Actress company who inhabit particular characterisation — most of the time, not too many degrees away from themselves. In the same decade, Susan Hayward won an Oscar for playing a peculiarly free-spirited criminal and Grace Kelly, partially for her de-glamourised portrayal and conventional domesticity. Putting aside the all-important factor of star power, I can’t think of too many explicit reasons that could have curbed Parker from victory in any other year.

No one delivers a line quite like Bette Davis’ Margo Channing (helped, of course, by the fact that the two personalities aren’t that different). Channing has an insatiable appetite for bon mots and Davis, in one of her most distinguished roles, delivers every single one with a venomous uppercut and a blinding half-smile. Davis doesn’t alter her voice as much as Holliday and Swanson, but she still executes Mankiewicz’s devilishly genius script with transfixing candour. The articulated delivery of one-liners about “bumpy rides,” “milkshakes,” “being 4-0” and her shrieked “paranoiac” reside in the corners of my brain. Ebert divinely lays out the likeness between Channing and Davis. In his “Great Movies” entry, he explains that Davis and her character are not defeated by a younger actress (or the burgeoning stars of the ‘50s) but that personality always triumphs over beauty. Davis is evidently not chameleonic as Channing. Most of the time it’s easier to see the actress before the character and though I’m never a fan of actors who play themselves… if there ever were a role. Sadly, for Davis, and this is all on me, transformation seals the deal for a grand performance (and that doesn’t just mean caking yourself in makeup or losing weight, *ahem* 21st-century acting winners), and for that reason alone, Davis takes my third place.

“Comedy is easy, drama is hard.” Well, not exactly. Holliday pulls off a masterclass as Billie Dawn, the ditzy but well-intentioned girlfriend to the tyrannic junkyard tycoon Harry Brock. Fresh from a Broadway tenure, her performance rings with the stealthiest awareness of comedic timing and razor-sharp entertainment. Holliday was born (good one) to play Billie — she just possesses the right knack from the get-go. I seriously love two films in her category but Holliday deserved the Oscar. It’s not so much a shame that she got caught in stiff competition but that most curious audiences attracted to her through this race become embroiled in dismissing her. One could write endlessly on Holliday’s trademark voice, her enthusiasm and the minute way she lives the script, almost as if Billie is calculating beneath, at her own pace of course. Heck, say she plays one-note throughout and you wouldn’t be so wrong but the note is a pretty spectacular one — pure music to my ears. Outside of the irresistible hilarity Holliday dishes out, her eleven o’clock clash with Harry is excellent dramatic work, breathtakingly powerful and all the more heartbreaking. If you tell your scummy boyfriend to “drop dead,” I cheer. If you play gin rummy with those gestures and that song break, I can’t help but laugh. Holliday steals the spotlight with this (irreplaceable) bravura take on classic comedy; a definite showcase that can only be replicated without the heart. Unlike her showy company, Billie Dawn doesn’t impress through revelations, or conniving, or deceit, but Holliday’s synonymous rendition lives on, just as well as the other four performances… at least for me.

Swanson’s heightened take on silent-era expressions and diva grandeur is what started my rabbit hole plunge into classic Hollywood first, and the Oscars second. Gloria Swanson, a real-life silent veteran plays Norma Desmond, a faded and tormented silent screen star of yesteryear. Hidden away in her mansion, she plans a Hollywood comeback. Seeing Swanson as Desmond for the first time, in all her glorious superficial theatrics is a treasured experience in my book. I’ve since rewatched Billy Wilder’s opus countless times. What most sticks out happened at an early morning restoration screening. Perhaps it was a clash of taste, or the fact that Swanson’s foray is so unlike anything from that era, but the audience would laugh at Norma Desmond’s feverishly elongated mannerisms and unhinged behaviour. Yeah, I took that personally. Here was a performance engraved in Hollywood insignia, tinged with a precise balance of affectations and balls to the wall mania, and you were giggling? Sure, there are plenty of people who consider Swanson’s persona overblown, and maybe a bit (gasp) overrated and sharing that moment allowed me to step back and see Swanson in a new light. A new angle that allowed me to appreciate the performance even more. Laughter amongst the frightened gazes, the clawed hands and the obliquely arched eyebrows, deepens the wounds of Desmond’s alienation and shatters her illusions of majesty and relevance. Swanson crafts a magnetic and fascinating performance. In the same breathe, Desmond is burdened by Hollywood, while Swanson was lauded for her craft… a performance for the ages, that hypnotises on revisits and upholds Old Hollywood’s enduring mystery.


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