Piper Laurie received her first Oscar nomination for playing Sarah Packard, a depressed girlfriend of a hustler in the Best Picture nominee, The Hustler. I'm quite sure that Laurie was the fourth runner-up. First, her role was not big enough to get enough votes plus the Academy didn't seem quite willing to give many awards to The Hustler. Moreover, the other nominees were much bigger names than Piper Laurie. I guess Laurie got closest to winning with Carrie and it was her time. I guess in her case the nomination was the reward.
The Hustler is such a terrific movie. Actually, I even think now that it should have won Best Picture and Adapted Screenplay. It's so dark and realistic (that's probably why it lost the Best Picture to the sugar coating of West Side Story). I loved the cinematography (deserved Oscar win) as it made the atmosphere even more depressing. Paul Newman is nothing short of amazing in the lead. I mean, I still can't believe how he could lose. This seemed to be such an Oscar moment (just like it was with Michelle Pfeiffer in The Fabulous Baker Boys) and he never gave a better performance. The supporting actors are pretty great, too though now I've become a bit uncertain who would get my vote in that category.
Piper Laurie is an excellent character actress who's the best at playing very meaty supporting roles. People mostly remember her as the fanatically religious mother of Carrie in the shocking Brian de Palma horror. Many say that she was robbed of the Oscar that year though I'm not 100% sure. What I'm sure is that her role in The Hustler is also a supporting one. She plays the typical depressed girlfriend, appears more than 35 minutes into the movie plus she has quite minimal screentime. The reason why she could be considered leading is probably that the character is crucial to the stoy (though that could be argued).
This is just one of the two main things this working against Laurie here. The other one is that it's pretty damn hard to give a truly knockout performance as a co-lead or a supporting player when the real lead gives the performance of a lifetime. I guess the same goes for the two nominated supporting actors here but their roles were so heavy and the characters had enough strength. And it's true: Laurie suffers a little bit from Newman's towering achievement but I felt that Newman (that's the real brilliance in his performance) let the others shine, too. He throws up all the balls to the others to catch them and Laurie barely misses them. In fact, when she's given spotlight she uses it as much as she can.
I could say that Sarah Packard is probably a distant relative of the character that Rachel Roberts played in This Sporting Life. They are both hardened, extremely depressed characters who suffer from their men and they are often humiliated by them. The characters couldn't be more alike but the actresses' approaches to them could not be any different. After watching Roberts I wanted to cut my own neck because it was so depressing but with Laurie it was kind of different. I really don't know myself how I felt. I was actually quite captivated by her sometimes.
Another criticsm could be the little bit stiff and theatrical line readings. However, I got used to that gradually and I felt that it was the part of the character. I felt that Sarah loved making a scene and be theatrical. Laurie had these big monologues and I think she handled them just as she had to. She put enough emotion into them and they all became quite strange but in a very good way.
Her last scenes are really the best, however. She really rocks in those scenes and shows some incredible acting. They didn't make the whole performance seem incredible but they indeed had a very positive effect on me and probably influenced me a lot. Her desperate last monologue to Paul Newman was handled excellently by her and I really felt what she wanted to say with those lines.
This is not a performance for the ages but Piper Laurie is very good as Sarah in The Hustler. Although sometimes she's too overshadowed by Paul Newman, her work never loses its strength and occasionally, we see truly brilliant, unforgettable scenes. Her achievement is very evenly great and therefore she deserves some praise.
What do you think?