The final deadline for membership voting on the 90th Academy Awards® for 2017 movies closes next Tuesday, and it’s always interesting to pull out one’s dog-eared copy of film historian Danny Peary’s 1993 Alternate Oscars® to revisit his definitely partisan but well-reasoned essays for his eclectic choices for Best Picture, Actor and Actress throughout the 64 years he covered. Previous blogs have touched on his past choices, including his selection for 1990’s Best Actor (instead of actual winner, Reversal of Fortune’s Jeremy Irons): the formidable Gary Oldman, playing the grimy, reckless Hell’s Kitchen Irish gangster Jackie Flannery in State of Grace (a Twilight Time title), considered the front runner for this year’s Best Actor prize for his riveting 180-degrees-different portrayal of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour. Recently, two Peary Best Actress picks have joined the TT library, and his arguments for their consideration are worth examining.
His selection for 1963’s top lead actress performance (rather than the Academy’s Patricia Neal in Hud) was a lady who boldly broke from her decade-long image as a wistful gamine to deliver a spirited, decidedly adult turn as a pregnant woman who rejects marriage and defiantly strikes out on her own: Leslie Caron as Jane Fosset in writer-director Bryan Forbes’s absorbing character study The L-Shaped Room (1962, released in the U.S. the following year). A Frenchwoman newly arrived in London, she moves into a down-market boarding house while she seeks to make a living and weigh her options for and against motherhood. Through encounters with the bed-sit residents (including Brock Peters, Avis Bunnage, Cicely Courtneidge and Patricia Phoenix) and doctors of varying ethical standards (Emlyn Williams and Gerald Sim) as well as a romance with a tenderhearted but destructively self-involved writer (Tom Bell as Toby), she weathers hard knocks and heartrendingly faces reality. Peary writes: “What makes Caron’s Jane so affecting is that she does strong things despite being extremely vulnerable and lacking self-esteem. Of going it alone she says simply, ‘I don’t have any choice.’ She tells Toby, ‘I’m not your responsibility – I’m not anybody’s but mine.’ People give her bad advice (which will help them more than her), let her down and put pressure on her. But despite the occasional lapse of confidence in her own decisions – she takes the pills, cries, has tantrums, chops off her hair in a moment of self-hatred – she remains firm. She must protect herself, as when she tells off Tony for trying, unsuccessfully, to make her feel like a whore (‘All I’ve had is two men, I’m 27 and only twice, that’s all it’s ever happened. So what does that make me?’). And she must find the way to replenish her sapping strength and achieve her own happiness. It’s wonderful to see Caron manage a rare smile! She does this when she makes love to Toby, when she recovers after the miscarriage attempt fails (‘I have a lot to be thankful for’), when she receives a baby crib from Johnny [Peters], and when she learns from the kindly doctor that her baby has been born: ‘He’s a girl!’ After the baby is born, Jane’s life is far from perfect – she must go live with parents who don’t understand her – but at least she’s truthful when she says, ‘I couldn’t be better.’ For once, a Caron character is living in the real world, where there aren’t many fairy-tale endings.”
A Peary pick 27 years later went under the awards-season radar in 1990 (except for the National Board of Review), yet also seems appropriate – albeit in light of events that followed soon afterward, heartbreakingly so: in place of the Academy’s coronation of Kathy Bates as the mentally disturbed Annie Potts in Misery, he proposed Mia Farrow’s utterly charming title-role performance as a distraught Manhattan matron who undergoes a magical reinvigoration in Woody Allen’s playful comic fantasy Alice (1990). A fluttery rich hausfrau with a strong streak of Catholicism stuck in a marriage to a condescending stockbroker (William Hurt), Alice Tate spends her days shopping and steadfastly playing the dutiful wife and mother, but her secret yearning for greater fulfillment, a surprise attraction to a saxophonist (Joe Mantegna) and her visit to a wizard-like acupuncturist-herbalist (Keye Luke in his screen finale as Dr. Yang) to seek a remedy for her painful back trigger a series of transformative events that open her eyes and widen her horizons. Peary’s evaluation: “Kathy Bates was praised for her mood swings in Misery, but Farrow matches her in Alice. We often take Farrow’s talent for granted, but in Alice we see how versatile she is, because Alice changes before our eyes while Allen patiently directs his camera at her. Probably the film’s highlight is when the shy Alice, who has just taken a potion, suddenly turns to Joe, whom she has never spoken to before, and tells him he has ‘fire’ in his eyes. Then she completely excites him with her brazen flirtation, using sexual innuendo and jazz lingo that she’s never said in her life. Her sophisticated delivery and naughty-eyed expression are like nothing we’ve seen Farrow do before. A few days later, Alice is a nervous wreck when she visits Yang and, in another one-take scene, switches from crazed to calm as she smokes opium – the change is subtle but the humor great. So is the talent. Farrow also has excellent scenes in which she tells off Joe for wanting an affair (actually she’s mad at herself), she dashes around the apartment dressing for her rendezvous with Joe; she is patronized by a former friend (Cybill Shepherd) who has made it big in television; she and Joe talk at the circus (male viewers will want her for a date), and she visits Dr. Yang. Farrow is on the screen the entire time, except when Alice is invisible, and she is never less than enchanting.” Enjoy acting excellence of an alternate-to-Oscar® stripe with the TT hi-def Blu-rays of The L-Shaped Room and Alice (the latter now 33% off Original List through February 28 as part of the label’s current MGM Titles Promotion). On the distaff side, don’t forget the Oldman-starred Romeo Is Bleeding (1993) and State of Grace, each 50% off in that same MGM lineup.