Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Eleanor Parker in Detective Story

Eleanor Parker received her second Oscar nomination for playing Mary McLeod, the mysterious wife of a hard-nosed detective played by Kirk Douglas in William Wyler's 1951 movie, Detective Story. Now I'm 100% positive that Eleanor was fifth in 1951. Although she had just been nominated the previous year, the others had much stronger things going for them: a sweeping movie (Shelley), a Globe win (Wyman), being a huge star (Kate) or giving one of the most legendary performances ever and also being an overwhelming front-runner (Vivien). So poor Eleanor didn't even had a prayer of winning, despite her campaign and successful and acclaimed movie. 

Which was, by the way, an excellent one. I've become really fond of it while I was watching it, even despite my initial indifference. Although it's all very theatrical (after all, it was based on a stage play) and I had a feeling that I was watching a filmed play instead of a movie, I was very often taken by the tension of the story. I think the nominations for Director and Screenplay were deserved. Also, I'm kind of shocked that Douglas didn't receive a Best Actor nomination. I suppose the field was already too crowded and I see that he would have actually beaten out Monty (all the other guys had more support) so I'm not going to complain.   I was, however, a bit shocked that Lee Grant was mentioned. I never really felt that her work was outstanding enough for an Oscar nomination. She had a great presence and offered good support but that's it mainly. Nobody had a chance next to Kim Hunter, anyhow, so whatever. 

How Eleanor Parker didn't turn out to be a huge star is beyond me. She had everything what it takes: beauty, talent and a radiant, irresistable personality that all make her a magnetic presence on the screen. Simple as that, in all the films I've seen from her, I could never take my eyes off her, because even if she was not constantly amazing, her star power made up for the rest. What also impresses me about her is her versatility not only in terms of parts but also in a single performance. She could show all the layers of a character so marvelously, with such ease and subtlety that I still keep wondering why people so often forget about her. I suppose she's the only three-time Best Actress nominee who's that rarely talked about. I myself cannot even connect her three nominations to her, it always feels like I'm watching the performance of a lady who got lucky once at the Oscar (more or less deservedly, depending on the picture). 

That being said, since I'm generally more than fond of Eleanor, I was looking forward to Detective Story with an open mind and an open heart. I just refused to believe all those not-too-kind words written on her in the past and now I feel kind of confused about her. I'm kind of uncertain about my feelings towards her. First of all, I have to set the record straight about the eternal question: leading or supporting? To tell you the truth, I'm once again confused, even more so than I was with Shelley yesterday, even despite the fact that Eleanor's screentime clearly suggests supporting. My leading/supporting test just doesn't seem to work in this  case. For me everyone's leading who's pivotal to the storyline, without whom the movie is unimaginable and who has a consinstent presence on the screen and who has an impact on the film, even while not being there (that's why I consider Viola leading in The Help and Octavia supporting despite the fact that Octavia had more time). 

We all know the saying: it's quality, not quantity. But that's something that doesn't seem to apply to all lead actresses. In Patricia Neal's case where she set the screen on fire with her few minutes, quantity clearly wasn't a case, but it only works if the actress gets the right opportunities from the screenplay. In Eleanor's case, her part is a little bit too limited. Or isn't it? I believe that with slightly stronger lines, Eleanor could have knocked this performance out of the park. 

I don't know if it was Eleanor's casting or her approach to the character that was wrong in the first place. She coasts a lot on her charisma and engaging star power and it actually worked for me for the most of the time. As always, I was taken by her presence and I was kind of impressed by her and I was wondering what the others meant in holes in her performance or becoming too confused by her. While you're watching the movie, in my opinion, it's all OK, you just have to think about her to find those holes in her performance. Now I feel perfectly what's wrong with her here and I figured that she wasn't believable enough for me sometimes. In a way, she was playing a mysterious almost woman who turns out to hide some pretty dirty stuff from her husband and Eleanor didn't make Mary enough of a bad girl if you know what I mean. I believe that going a little bit more over the top would have helped a lot. 

I guess the problem is also Eleanor herself. I was looking at some pictures of Meg Mundy, the actress who originated Mary's part on Broadway and even without hearing her or watching her acting, I see that she was two times better for this part. I can see that she had more of that bad girl look, which Eleanor didn't have (or only later, but being bitchy as the Baronesse in The Sound of Music was quite different what was required from her here). IF Eleanor had made Mary less of a saint and more of a femme fatale, her work would have had the impact that would have made her a 100% leading player in this film. 

And again, this performance is all too confusing, because despite all these arguments, I just cannot feel exclusively negative about her. It's not that she becomes an insignificant, ignorable presence like Sissy Spacek in The River. I was actually looking forward to each and every scene of hers, because she gave the movie a more dramatic edge, which made her a welcome presence in my mind. I actually cared for her character and I was very much intrigued by her storyline, which was, by far, the most interesting one. Moreover, I found her chemistry with Kirk Douglas quite strong and I was actually impressed by some of Eleanor's scenes to an extent (actually, almost all of them). 

All in all, I just don't want to bash Eleanor's work here. I found her approach to the part totally wrong and I thought that she wasted a lot of important opportunities in her character that would have made a lot of difference in the movie and her performance. However, I was still intrigued by her and her magnetic presence kept me interested in her character whose storyline was the most interesting one in the movie. I'm confused.
What do you think?


joe burns said...

Never seen her either, when I bega reading your review, I thought you'd like her more, but I guess not..

Off-topic, but are there any years you'd like to see me do in particular? from Best Actress?

dinasztie said...

Well, I don't know. I'd say 1951. :D

Louis Morgan said...

I can't say I'm surprised probably should have put her last.

dinasztie said...

Louis: Jane can turn out to be last as you predicted just as easily as Eleanor.