Today is my 48th birthday. For the past two years I’ve been looking at my birthday through the lens of the Best Picture Academy Award winners from the year of my AGE. In other words, I talked about the 1946 winner, “The Best Years of Our Lives” when I turned 46, and I ruminated on 1947’s “Gentleman’s Agreement” last year on my 47th birthday. In 1948, the Best Picture Oscar went to Laurence Olivier’s “Hamlet.” Yawn. Not that it wasn’t a great film, but I’m a little reluctant to look at my upcoming year in the context of murder, revenge, madness, jealousy, and Oedipus complexes. Oh wait, maybe that IS the perfect description of my life…
Is it a bad omen for the upcoming year that all of the 1948 Best Picture nominees were so rife with dysfunction? Besides “Hamlet,” the films honored that year were “Johnny Belinda,” detailing the brutal rape and torment of a deaf mute, “The Red Shoes,” a Powell and Pressburger film about the ultimately tragic obsessions of a prima ballerina, “The Snake Pit,” a portrait of a woman fighting her way back from severe mental illness, and “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” a story of greed and lawlessness in post-revolutionary Mexico. Not exactly “Singin’ in the Rain” but the films do seem to reflect some of my underlying anxiety and fears. I know I didn’t “choose” which films were nominated in 1948 but if my therapist were to see that I was discussing films such as the dismal “Johnny Belinda” on my birthday, she’d ask irritating (but important) questions such as “What aren’t you hearing in your life? How are you feeling mute? In what ways do you feel raped or brutalized?” Ugh, maybe I should stick to that happy-go-lucky family in Denmark.
To be or not to be, that is the question;
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing, end them. To die, to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to — 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd. To die, to sleep;
To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there's the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.
1948’s “Hamlet” was the first British film ever to be given top honors by the Academy. Olivier directed and starred in the film and remains the only actor ever to win an Oscar for playing the tormented prince. But though the Academy members showered the film with awards, Shakespeare purists were horrified by Olivier’s decision to cut nearly two hours of dialogue and eliminate some characters entirely including the always popular Rosencrantz and Guilderstein. Still, many regard Olivier’s version as the definitive cinematic treatment.
I was probably 17 or 18 when I first saw this film. I remember Eileen Herlie’s expert turn as Queen Gertrude. Herlie was only 28 years old when she played 41-year-old Olivier’s mother, but proved she had the chops for the role which she reprised in the 1964 Richard Burton version, Today Herlie rarely gets to exercise such acting skills on “All My Children” where she’s played former carny woman Myrtle Fargate for decades. The other actress who made a big impression on me was Jean Simmons. I remember getting her wonderful Ophelia confused with the character of Morticia Addams’ crazy sister Ophelia on “The Addams Family.” I’m guessing Carolyn Jones based her parody on Simmons’ performance. I always liked Jean Simmons but I think she had her best roles when she was very young, most notably the vicious 16-year-old Estella in David Lean’s “Great Expectations” and then playing Ophelia in “Hamlet” for which she was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar at the age of 19. When Simmons became a full-fledged superstar in the 1950s, she was constantly shoved into bloated costume dramas, rarely getting a chance to shine as brightly as she did in her earlier work. In 1948, Simmons lost the award to Claire Trevor in “Key Largo” for a part written by Jean Simmons’ future husband Richard Brooks. Trevor deserved the accolades she received for her role as the boozing and reviled ex-lover of Edward G. Robinson, but the other nominees that year were also worthy and hold special places in my TV-saturated heart: Agnes Moorehead (Endora on “Bewitched”) was nominated for her excellent performance in “Johnny Belinda” and both Ellen Corby (“The Waltons”) and Barbara Bel Geddes (“Dallas”) were nominated for “I Remember Mama.” The Best Director winner that year, John Huston, could have renamed his film “I Remember Papa” since his dad Walter Huston won the Best Supporting Actor award for his appearance in John’s “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.”
But let’s get back to ME. Who among the acting nominees that year do I most identify with? Not really Larry’s Hamlet, despite his angst, or any of the other Best Actor nominees with the possible exception of Montgomery Clift who played an American G.I. in “The Search” who finds a little boy who survived Auschwitz. Clift tries to sift through the burned-out hell of postwar Europe to find the little boy's mother. Auschwitz? Missing mothers? I’m in! The rest of the nominees that year seemed surprisingly lackluster: Clifton Webb for his first turn as the prissy babysitter Mr. Belvedere in “Sitting Pretty,” Lew Ayres as the kindly doctor in “Johnny Belinda,” and Dan Dailey as an alcoholic vaudeville performer in the forgotten Betty Grable vehicle, “When My Baby Smiles at Me.” And yet the Academy overlooked Humphrey Bogart’s gritty performance in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre?” Go figure. Do you think this was the first Best Actor roster in history that boasted three closeted homosexuals (Olivier, Clift, and Webb) and one known crossdresser (Dailey)? Was that a marker of the increasingly repressed Cold War era?
No, I have to admit that as I turn 48, the nominee with whom I resonate the most is Olivia de Havilland in “The Snake Pit,” the harrowing tale of a woman who finds herself in an insane asylum but can’t remember how she got there. This is basically my biggest fear in life—that I will suddenly and unexpectedly lose it to the point where I end up in a mental institution. I completely identified with de Havilland’s performance and thought her natural vulnerability made her perfect for the role (can’t you just see Melanie Wilkes from “Gone with the Wind” ending up in the loony bin?). All of the 1948 Best Actress nominees played on-the-edge characters with the exception of Irene Dunne’s Norwegian matriarch in “I Remember Mama.” Barbara Stanwyck was nominated for her role as a bedridden heiress in “Sorry Wrong Number” who comes to believe that her husband is trying to have her murdered. I could well relate to Stanwyck’s level of paranoia, even though I don’t think Kendall has any contracts out on my life. Another nominee that year was Ingrid Bergman for “Joan of Arc.” I remember loving Ingrid and hating this movie but I’ve only seen the butchered 90-minute version. I hear the UCLA Film Archive recently restored the film to its original length, well over two hours, and I’ve got to get my hands on that DVD. This was Ingrid Bergman’s dream project, she fought long and hard to make it, but as luck would have it, the film was released just as news of her adulterous affair with Roberto Rossellini hit the papers. Fans stayed away in droves and the film tanked. The public just couldn’t handle the disgraced actress playing a saint even though the Academy voters were more charitable. Did Ingrid/Joan really hear those voices or was she yet another candidate for Olivia’s Snake Pit? The Best Actress winner that year was Jane Wyman, aka Mrs. Ronald Reagan, for her role as a deaf mute who is misunderstood by her relatives and brutally raped by an outsider who then torments her endlessly. This is one of the most depressing, misery-filled, hopeless films I’ve ever seen. In other words, I loved it. When Wyman won her award she gave the shortest Oscar speech on record: “I won this award by keeping my mouth shut and I think I’ll do it again.”
Nominee Ingrid Bergman died on her own birthday, but Irene Dunne died on mine, on September 4, 1990, so maybe I should end this post with her. I loved all of Dunne’s performances, not just her kindly Norwegian mama. I could watch movies like “Magnificent Obsession,” “Theodora Goes Wild,” “The Awful Truth,” and “My Favorite Wife” over and over again. Despite Dunne’s real-life devotion to the Republican Party, it wouldn’t hurt for me to try to emulate her positive and realistic outlook on life as I head towards 50. She once commented that she lacked the “terrifying ambition” of other actresses. She said, “I drifted into acting and drifted out. Acting is not everything. Living is.”