Posted by Jeff Stafford on October 16, 2011
As Hollywood’s newest stars get younger and I get older, I find comfort and inspiration in the career arcs of certain actors who might have made a big splash in their youth but stayed the course and became supreme masters of their craft. Some like Dick Powell totally reinvented themselves with an entirely new persona while others like Shelley Winters went the character actor route, grabbing some of the best roles for women available while working with the greatest directors. Here are just a few that make my short list.
For most of the forties, Shelley Winters went through a starlet-in-training phase where she was cast in bit parts as office workers, bar hostesses, chorus girls and other stereotypical female types. The one early exception was a showcase role in A Double Life (1947) as the hapless waitress and victim of a mentally deranged actor (Ronald Colman) who invests himself too deeply in his current role of Othello; critics took notice and singled her out in reviews. But it was obvious that Shelley was never really cut out for glamour girl roles and wisely campaigned for better parts (without much success) until the early fifties when she began to win the female lead in numerous films such as Johnny Stool Pigeon (1949), Frenchie (1950) and Behave Yourself (1951). Most of these starring roles were in undistinguished B pictures but the picture that marked a real turning point for her was George Stevens’ A PLACE IN THE SUN (1951). As the desperate, pregnant factory girl abandoned by Montgomery Clift for Elizabeth Taylor, Winters scored her first and only Oscar nomination in the Best Actress category at the age of 31 (Oddly enough, this part would probably be considered a supporting role by the Academy today).
From here on out she just got better and better though it was the supporting roles in films like Executive Suite (1954), I Am a Camera (1955) and The Big Knife (1955) that played to her strengths and not lead parts in mediocre fare like Saskatchewan (1954) and Playgirl (1954). Certainly The Night of the Hunter (1955) demonstrated her desire to take risks in offbeat projects but by the time she made THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK (1959), again working for George Stevens, she seemed to have a very clear idea about her strengths as an actress and the roles that would reveal them. She won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK and would be nominated for the same honors again for A PATCH OF BLUE (1965), another win, and THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (1972). The latter may seem a like a joke in retrospective but it was typical of some of the campy, larger-than-life performances she gave in her later years.
In regards to A PATCH OF BLUE, you have to admire her fearlessness in playing such a hateful, abusive character but it wasn’t the first time she avoided easy empathy or identification for audiences. Here are some other favorite Shelley performances which prove her greatness as a character actress: her delightfully witty and ultimately pathetic portrayal of a man hungry, literary groupie in LOLITA (1962), her voracious sexual adventuress in ALFIE (1966), which, if you’ve read her autobiographies could reflect the real Shelley Winters, her go-for-broke incestuous gangster mom in BLOODY MAMA (1970), the mentally unstable companion of Debbie Reynolds in the underrated WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN? (1971), the angry divorcee in therapy in BLUME IN LOVE (1973) and the sort of nightmare Jewish mother you want to hide from your friends in NEXT STOP, GREENWICH VILLAGE (1976). Who cares if some of her mannerisms or characters became parodies of herself – the hysterical crying and blubbering, the clinging, pathetic neediness, the volatile, invective-spewing loudmouth –Winters was willing to portray some of the worst aspects of female behavior, vanity be damned, in her attempts to depict emotional truths and realistic human behavior. Winters may have been guilty of overacting at times but she was never boring.
At a certain point in his career, Dick Powell must have felt like he was going to be trapped in musicals for his entire career, playing energetic, naive, squeaky clean go-getter types – usually crooners, songwriters or aspiring show biz hopefuls. At the age of 40, he was still being cast in these parts (Meet the People, 1944) but something happened that same year that changed the course of his career; he won the role of Philip Marlowe in MURDER, MY SWEET (1944) and the public saw another side of Powell – a tough, unromanticized anti-hero – that they readily accepted and so did directors and casting agents. This is not to say that Powell’s early work is inconsequential – he served his purpose well in such Busby Berkeley musicals as 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933 and Dames though his characters were usually one-dimensional, a bit goofy and relentlessly cheerful. Clearly the moviegoing public found him a pleasant, engaging screen presence because he made more than 20 musicals between 1932 and 1944 but I have little interest in this phase of his career though I’m quite fond of his performance in Preston Sturges’ Christmas in July (1940).
I prefer the noirs and thrillers he made between 1944 and 1951, with director Edward Dmytryk guiding him through his new persona in both MURDER, MY SWEET and CORNERED (1945). In these he was unshaven, grubby, cynical, even mean-spirited and capable of sudden violence…and he was completely convincing at it. Although he never won any acting awards for his work, Powell brings a realistic human element to the family men and federal agents he played during this phase with PITFALL (1948) and THE TALL TARGET (1951), among his best work. In the former, he plays a bored insurance salesman who jeopardizes his happy home when he gets involved with femme fatale Lizabeth Scott. The latter is a tense, conspiracy thriller, directed by Anthony Mann, in which Powell tries to prevent an assassination attempt on Abraham Lincoln. Both films would make a great contrast to a double feature of COLLEGE COACH (1933) and FLIRTATION WALK (1934) so people could compare the two Dick Powells.
Like her peers, Rock Hudson and Tony Curtis, Piper Laurie went through a period at Universal in the early fifties where the studio put her in various B-movie genre films in an attempt to gauge her popularity and possibly turn her into a star. While both Hudson and Curtis soon graduated to starring roles and boxoffice success by the mid-fifties, Laurie never got a break but how could she with the sort of roles she was offered? Francis Goes to the Races (1951), which was part of the Francis, the Talking Mule franchise, costume adventures like The Prince Who Was a Thief (1951) and Son of Ali Baba (1952), and melodramas like Dangerous Mission (1954).
She finally called it quits in 1957 and left Universal to go freelance. Although her role in MGM’s romantic epic UNTIL THEY SAIL (1957) was a step in the right direction with a memorable character part as a promiscuous wife who is murdered by her husband, Laurie didn’t make much of an impact with critics or moviegoers until her acclaimed performance as the down and out girlfriend of pool room shark Paul Newman in THE HUSTLER (1961). The role won her an Oscar nomination and should have led to a major film career but except for some TV work during the sixties Laurie kept a low profile until she reemerged in the mid-seventies, scoring a surprise comeback role as the crazed, evangelical mother of a teenage girl with telekinetic powers in CARRIE (1976). Finally, at the age of 44, Laurie seemed poised for success and destined for more work after an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for CARRIE. But, except for a handful of small scale pictures including the Australian made Tim (1979), opposite a young Mel Gibson, Laurie returned to TV work and didn’t have another film renaissance until the mid-eighties when she garnered her second Oscar nomination in the Best Supporting Actress category for CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD (1986). Work offers became steady after that with memorable roles in quirky indie films such as The Crossing Guard (1995) and The Dead Girl (2005) and Laurie is still working today. But even if she had only made THE HUSTLER, CARRIE and CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD, she would warrant more than a footnote in film history books and serves as a telling reminder of how Hollywood often wastes great talent.
Was anyone aware of Morgan Freeman before he seemingly came out of nowhere to win a Best Supporting Actor nomination for STREET SMART (1987)? This was a rather routine crime drama/star vehicle for Christopher Reeve that was elevated by Freeman’s intense performance as a psychotic pimp and matched by Kathy Baker’s as his ill-fated prostitute/slave. Freeman’s frighteningly sinister portrayal as Fast Black could have typecast him in villainous roles for the rest of his career but he somehow avoided that trap. Instead, at the age of 50, Freeman had arrived but he been working in the film industry since 1964, playing bit parts in The Pawnbroker (1964), A Man Called Adam (1966), with Sammy Davis Jr., the Doris Day comedy Where Were You When the Lights Went Out? (1968) and a regular stint on TV’s The Electric Company.
Things began to look up for Morgan beginning in the early eighties with larger, more richly detailed roles in movies such as Brubaker (1980), Eyewitness (1980), Teachers (1984), and the Sissy Spacek drama Marie (1985). After STREET SMART, he very quickly entered the Hollywood fast track for A projects and the next year earned his first Best Actor Oscar nomination for Driving Miss Daisy (1989).
More acting honors and awards would follow and Freeman’s Johnny-come-lately success still stands as an inspiration to any actor who has been struggling to succeed for years in the film and TV industry. Of course, he’s always had the talent needed to command starting roles and two of my favorite Woodward roles are the ones in which his characters provide the missing humanity needed in the dark, nihilistic worlds of UNFORGIVEN (1992) and SE7EN (1995). Probably his most overlooked performance and one of his best is in NURSE BETTY (2000), Neil LaBute’s black comedy which Roger Ebert described as “one of those films where you don’t know whether to laugh or cringe, and find yourself doing both.”
Freeman has now become the gold standard in casting that any major studio production needs in its roster – look at his filmography over the past decade which has included Million Dollar Baby (2004), Batman Begins (2005), Gone Baby Gone (2007), The Dark Knight (2008), Invictus (2009), Dolphin Tale (2011). Still, I feel the best is yet to come from this actor who is almost 75 years old.
Unlike most American actresses of her generation who learned screen acting through the studio system approach of constant work, the Scottish stage trained Kerr was already an accomplished thespian by the time she made her screen debut in Major Barbara in 1940. Through sheer talent and maybe some luck she pretty much avoided the whole ingénue stage most young actresses have to go through and snagged highly sought after roles in such high profile British productions as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) and Black Narcissus (1947) – both Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger productions – and big budget American movies such as King Solomon’s Mines (1950) and Quo Vadis (1951). She seemed incapable of giving a bad performance and always brought class and intelligence to her roles but the stereotype of the genteel and proper English actress seemed to cling to her regardless of the roles she took on until FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (1953), a major triumph for her at the age of 32 (and a second Best Actress Oscar nomination).
Although Kerr had already received a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her work in Edward, My Son (1949), she surprised everyone with her portrayal in ETERNITY of a neglected wife whose sexual hunger and loneliness results in a torrid affair with her husband’s adjutant officer (Burt Lancaster). Cast against type (and as a blonde), Kerr smashed the illusion that she was made to only play high class women of impeccable breeding and sophistication….or nuns. She would certainly continue to play those types of parts in An Affair to Remember (1957) and Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957), respectively, but look at the other challenging roles she would tackle in her mid to late 30s – The King and I (1956) – Deborah Kerr in a musical? She is quite moving as the chic but wary Anne Larson of Bonjour Tristesse (1958), destroyed by her lover’s jealous daughter (Jean Seberg). And she is completely deglamorized and mousey as a shy spinster in Separate Tables (1958) and earthy and good-humored as the wife of a sheep drover in The Sundowners (1960).
My favorite Kerr performance though is her sexually repressed and increasingly frantic governess in THE INNOCENTS (1961), probably the finest film adaptation to date of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw though there have been countless versions filmed.
Bogarde was groomed to be a matinee idol by Rank studios but he had a low opinion of most of the movies he made there despite his boxoffice success in films such as Doctor in the House (1954) which spawned numerous sequels. The commercial cinema obviously bored him and accounts for remarks he made like this one, “Cinema is just a form of masturbation. Sexual relief for disappointed people. Women write and say, “I let my husband do it because I think it’s you lying on top of me”. Bogarde had higher aspirations for his screen acting career and you can see glimpses of it in such early efforts as The Sleeping Tiger (1954), his first collaboration with director Joseph Losey, Cast a Dark Shadow (1955), in which he played a cunning lady killer, and the 1958 film adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities.
After a brief flirtation with Hollywood when he made The Angel Wore Red (1960) with Ava Gardner and the Franz Liszt biopic Song Without End (1960), Bogarde returned to England, determined to take his career into his own hands. This he accomplished almost overnight, changing the critics’ perception of him and moviegoers with the release of VICTIM (1961). Controversial for its time due to its story of a closeted gay married lawyer who risks ruining his career by exposing a blackmailer who preys on homosexuals, the film marked the beginning of Bogarde’s rise as an important dramatic actor on an international scale. He was 40 at the time but bigger triumphs would soon follow.
THE SERVANT (1963), directed by Joseph Losey, remains a highwater mark in his career and he is pitch perfect as the sinister and manipulative title character who slowly comes to dominate his weak-willed employer (James Fox). This is the place to start for Bogarde novices but there are other enticing entry points – DARLING (1965), for instance – where he plays one of Julie Christie’s many lovers but the one she can’t have in the end. And ACCIDENT (1967), another Joseph Losey production, in which he plays a philosophy professor at Oxford going through a mid-life crisis. Surprisingly, he never received an Oscar nomination but he garnered plenty of British acting honors and his performance in Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice (1971) is probably his highest regarded performance of his later years. Though I am not a huge fan of the latter film, I admire Bogarde’s risky attempts over the years to break away from his image from the Rank years in such offbeat films as The Mind Benders (1963), the anti-war drama King and Country (1964) and the spy parody Modesty Blaise (1966) – both directed by Losey – Our Mother’s House (1967), The Night Porter (1974), Alain Resnais’ Providence (1977) and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Despair (1978).
I first saw Charlotte Rampling in GEORGY GIRL (1966) and it was a remarkably assured and self-contained performance by someone who had only appeared in two films prior to this. As Meredith, the bitchy, opportunistic and untettered roommate of Lynn Redgrave’s title character she commanded all the attention in her scenes despite being a supporting player. She was gorgeous and sexy and knew it and part of this realization informed a lot of her early work. The English actress’s film choices during the sixties and early seventies could be wrong-headed or inspired as evidenced by Roger Corman’s Target: Harry (1969), Three (1969), Luchino Visconti’s The Damned (1969), in which she is perfectly cast in a decadent, atmospheric Nazi era melodrama, ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore (1971), The Ski Bum (1971), and Corky (1972), as the wife of Robert Blake!
Some people like to point to Liliana Cavani’s controversial THE NIGHT PORTER (1974) as Rampling’s emergence as a major actress. The story of a concentration camp survivor (Rampling) who encounters (in a Vienna hotel) the former SS guard (Dirk Bogarde) who sexually abused her, this kinky, S&M fever dream was not for all tastes; Roger Ebert labeled it “Nazi chic” but Molly Haskell gave the film serious consideration in a New York Times article entitled “Are Women Directors Different?” Regardless of whether people loved or loathed THE NIGHT PORTER, Rampling’s career certainly didn’t suffer from the exposure but the uneven quality of her films continued through the seventies with such missed opportunities as Farewell, My Lovely (1975), a stylized but souless remake of the Raymond Chandler noir with Charlotte, made to look like Lauren Bacall in her forties noirs, opposite Robert Mitchum’s detective, Arturo Ripstein’s Foxtrot (1976) with Peter O’Toole and Max von Sydow, and the dreadful Jaws wannabe, Orca (1977).
Rampling was stunning to look at, no doubt about, but I still was undecided about her as an movie actress until I saw her in Woody Allen’s STARDUST MEMORIES (1980) and wondered why other directors hadn’t put her talents to better use. Even though her part in the Allen film was not large and more like a brief series of vignettes, it resonated and gave you a glimpse of the great potential there. That for me was the beginning of the Rampling renaissance that continued with her follow-up film, Sidney Lumet’s THE VERDICT (1982); she plays a self-destructive alcoholic who is a bad match for broken down, boozing lawyer Paul Newman and it was further confirmation of her too often wasted gifts as an actress. Still, major stardom seemed to elude her but her cult following was growing in leaps and bounds with such eccentric films to her credit as Nagisa Oshima’s Max mon amour (1986), in which her secret lover is a chimpanzee, the occult thriller Angel Heart (1987), David Hare’s Paris by Night (1988), and the occasional prestige film, The Wings of the Dove (1997), based on the Henry James novel.
I think film critics and moviegoers finally began to notice the unique phenomenon that is Charlotte Rampling with UNDER THE SAND (2000), directed by Francois Ozon. A fascinating psychological drama in which a recent widow goes through a long process of denial over her husband’s disappearance, this critically acclaimed film earned the actress numerous nominations at film festivals and a new appreciation for her long career which is still going strong today. Ozon certainly deserves credit for giving Rampling a great second act and an even bigger success in the 2003 thriller SWIMMING POOL. Since then she has had equally provocative and memorable roles in the black comedy Lemming (2005), Heading South (2005) and Todd Solondz’s Life During Wartime (2009). She has appeared in 7 films in 2011 alone including the forecoming Lars von Trier film, Melancholia. I think we can safely say that her time has come at last.
Not many actors have enjoyed as long a career as Randolph Scott did. In his early career he was cast in just about every genre film you can think of including horror (Murders in the Zoo, Supernatural – both 1933), musicals (Follow the Fleet, 1936) and family pictures (Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, 1938) and seemed to fit the image of the ideal leading man without ever earning the distinction of being a great or even exceptionally good actor. I can’t really think of a standout performance in any of his early films (nor can I think of a terrible one either) though he seemed to have a natural affinity for the Western starting with Heritage of the Desert (1932). By the mid-forties he was pretty well entrenched as a top boxoffice star in that genre, playing the hero in films like The Desperadoes (1943), Badman’s Territory (1946) and Trail Street (1947, in which he played Bat Masterson).
I think the real turning point for Scott was when he began to collaborate with director Budd Boetticher on a different kind of Western, one with more psychological depth and complex characters starting with SEVEN MEN FROM NOW (1956). Producer Harry Joe Brown, who had worked with Scott on numerous westerns prior to this, teamed up with Boetticher and Scott beginning with THE TALL T (1957), and the movies they made together are in a league of their own, much admired by French film critics who considered Boetticher an auteur director long before American critics jumped on that bandwagon.
Looking at Scott’s work in westerns such as DECISION AT SUNDOWN (1957) or RIDE LONESOME (1959), one can see the template for Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name from his spaghetti western trilogy and other terse, enigmatic drifters from the westerns that followed. Scott is magnetic in these films and draws us in because he is partly inscrutable. Less is more here. I don’t think many critics at the time singled out Scott’s fine work in the Boetticher westerns or even thought of Scott as anything other than a B-movie Western star. But take a look at him in any of these movies and you’ll realize what a fine, underrated actor he had become by the end of his career. Film historian David Thomson voices this same opinion in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, stating, “…one feels that Scott’s middle-aged Westerner is as unsentimental and self-sufficient as the cinema has achieved. The man’s integrity never looks less than hard-earned and desperately sustained.”
My favorite Scott performance, though, is his swan song – RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY (1962), opposite Joel McCrea and directed by Sam Peckinpah. As former gunslinger Gil Westrum, Scott is a fascinating creation, a mixture of charm, cunning and duplicity but there are still traces of decency left in his shady character. It’s a rich portrayal and perfectly pitched against McCrea’s more regretful and humane saddle tramp. Both deserved Oscar nominations but were overlooked by the Academy voters. Yet the work lives on and both RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY and the Boetticher westerns are a testament to Scott’s iconic status in the genre.
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