Friday, June 15, 2007


Lowering the bar

By Edward Copeland
I haven't seen Interrupted Melody but based on Caged and Detective Story, I have to ask: Is Eleanor Parker the worst actress ever to receive three Oscar nominations? John Cromwell's 1950 women-in-prison melodrama set the template for oodles of femmes-behind-bars flicks to come, but Parker's awful performance really keeps Caged from being a true guilty pleasure, even with all the talent that surrounds her.

The presence of such pros as Agnes Moorehead, Ellen Corby, Jan Sterling and Jane Darwell only makes Parker's limited acting skills stand out even further, especially when facing off against the indelible creation of Oscar nominee Hope Emerson as the evil prison matron Evelyn Harper, a prison guard so malevolent that she makes Hume Cronyn in Brute Force seem kindly and charitable toward his prisoners. Moorehead turns in a nice, understated turn as the reform-minded warden and most of the other inmates are well played. However, standing above them all (literally and figuratively) is Emerson's Evelyn Harper. The actress looks like a giant and her sharp features at times reminded me of Mark McKinney playing the Chicken Lady on The Kids in the Hall. Emerson's low-hanging, sharp bosoms make such a presence, and not in a lustful way, that I wouldn't have been surprised if at some point she'd ripped off her shirt to reveal she actually was hiding turret guns under there. I caught Caged this week on TCM, which is having a "Screened Out" series this month on gay-themed films, both overt and covert, co-hosted by Roger Fristoe. In his post-Caged talk with Robert Osborne, Fristoe mentioned that the implied lesbianism in Caged received less problems from the censors than the issue of Parker's character's pregnancy. While there certainly are lesbian allusions in the film, I didn't think they were as blatant as even 1929's German silent classic Pandora's Box, which I saw recently. Then again, Emerson's character is supposed to be the main lesbian symbol and, honestly, this crone is so frightening that you don't want to imagine her being intimate with either sex.

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Personally, I think you're being a bit tough on Parker - I don't think she deserved the nomination, but she was far from wretched, especially when you consider some of the truly atrocious performances that have been nominated (and won) over the years. As far as her being a bad actress, I'd submit her work in The Man with the Golden Arm as a contradiction of that.

I do agree with you, however, that is Hope Emerson's sadistic boogeywoman who dominates the film - it's a deliciously evil performance, one which I'd be tempted to call the best supporting turn by an actress in 1950 if not for Judy Holliday's work in Adam's Rib - which Emerson also appeared in, as the circus strongwoman who lifts Spencer Tracy off the courtroom floor at Katharine Hepburn's prodding.
It's been so long since I've seen Man with the Golden Arm, I can't remember her in that. Have you seen Interrupted Melody? Is she any better there than she is in Caged or Detective Story?
She's not particularly good in Interrupted Melody - a biopic about an opera singer who came down with polio. I thought her performance improved in the last half hour of Caged, after the character had toughened up some - and I actually thought she gave a perfectly fine performance in Detective Story, although I have no idea how her roughly 25 minutes of screentime qualified her as a lead in the eyes of The Academy. She was much, much better in roles that brought out her meanness and her toughness - as Sinatra's bitter, wheelchair-bound wife in Golden Arm, locked in a marriage based on mutual recrimination and cruelty with Robert Mitchum in Home from the Hill, and as the frontier con woman with ice water running through her veins in A King and Four Queens - one of the few times Clark Gable ever seemed to have the shit scared out of him by a woman.

For all the good performances, and the nominations besides, I suppose it's as the bitch in The Sound of Music that she is best remembered. As a sidenote, she is still alive and will celebrate her 85th birthday in a week and a half.
Caged is a guilty pleasure of mine. In fact, it was supposed to be a double feature at the Shameful Movies of Odie's Past, on the bill with Chained Heat, but I couldn't find either on DVD. Parker's performance, as shaky as it is, set the standard for chicks in chains heroines, and I will have to offer my dissertation on this at the next SMOOP.

As for Parker movies, I'm rather partial to A Hole in the Head.
I suppose I have to speak up here because my "Action Heroines" blogathon post was kind of a love letter to here character in the swashbuckler "Scaramouche." On the other hand, I haven't seen (or can't remember seeing) any of the other films mentioned other than "Sound of Music" so I can't really defend her overall career.

The difference might be that "Scaramouche" allows her to be funny as well as melodramatic. She has a really great part and, at least in that one movie, she more than lives up to it. Her final big scene is particularly good -- but it's exceptionally strong in that her character is actually trying to conceal her emotions.
I haven't seen Scaramouche and as I said my memory of The Man With the Golden Arm is hazy, so I probably am being too harsh on her. Maybe I should have qualified it by saying the performances she was nominated for (at least the two of the three I've seen) were bad. I thought she wasn't very good in Detective Story either. There may be a parallel to someone like Ed Harris, a good actor, whose Oscar nominations include a lame performance (The Truman Show) and a downright awful one (The Hours).
"I have to ask: Is Eleanor Parker the worst actress ever to receive three Oscar nominations? "

No - Julia Roberts has been nominated three times, so Parker is only the second-worst.
I loved Scaramouche. No other swashbuckler comes close to being as entertaining to me.
I had DVR'd Caged and just watched it. I didn't find anything too wrong with her performance.
OK, so Ed Harris may have been awful to watch in a movie that was equally awful to watch (The Hours), but if you truly think that his lovely and pitch-perfect work in Peter Weir's magnificent film can be accurately described as "lame"...I just don't know what to say :-(
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