This wonderful season of accolades, applause and awards is my favorite time of the year. I rejoice in the Golden Globes, swoon over the Screen Actors Guild Awards, and become absolutely enraptured by the granddaddy of them all – the Oscars. But I can’t help but notice that, while Hollywood seems to have an honor for practically every occasion and occupation, it has been known to take many a misstep over its long and illustrious history, leaving a number of empty-handed, but ever-so-deserving performers in its wake.
Today, I pay homage to some of the famous femmes of the silver screen who, despite long and storied careers, never walked off a stage clutching a golden Academy Award statuette for a single screen part. What follows is my own personal Oscar ceremony, featuring my Top 10 Oscar-worthy performances from the pre-Code and film noir eras, and the Oscar-less ladies who brought the roles to life. Salut!
Lauren Bacall: Vivian Rutledge in The Big Sleep (1946)
Lauren Bacall was nominated for an Oscar in 1997, for her supporting role in The Mirror Has Two Faces. The fact that she didn’t win the prize that year isn’t the only travesty. Worse still is that this was her first and only nomination! After more than five decades in the biz! What about To Have and Have Not? What about Young Man with a Horn? And what about my personal pick, The Big Sleep? You may not have known what the heck was going on in this film half the time, and you may never have figured who killed the chauffeur, but I’ll wager that you couldn’t keep your eyes off of Bacall whenever she was on screen.
This scene makes me smile every time I see it.
Oscar-worthy scene: Although The Big Sleep was certainly no comedy, I’m mad about the scene that shows Bacall and her real-life hubby Humphrey Bogart in a humorous routine where they prank a police official on the phone. The bit begins when Bacall’s character, Vivian Rutledge, telephones a police station, but before she can speak, Bogart – as private dick Philip Marlowe – takes the receiver, asking the cop on the other end to state his business. The disembodied voice of the frustrated officer can be heard through the receiver as Vivian and Marlowe pass the phone back and forth, toying with him: “Look, this is not a police station . . . what was that you said? Oh, my father should hear this,” Vivian quips. I defy you to keep a smile off of your face.
Oscar-worthy quote: “So you’re a private detective. I didn’t know they existed, except in books, or else they were greasy little men snooping around hotel corridors. My, you’re a mess, aren’t you?”
Jean Harlow: Kitty Packard in Dinner at Eight (1933)
This fabulous feature, focusing on a motley crew of guests and hosts at an elegant dinner party, is one of my most-watched and most-appreciated pre-Codes. And Jean Harlow is the main reason why. The blonde bombshell of the big screen stands out like a shining star amongst such luminaries as John and Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Billie Burke, Lee Tracy, Madge Evans, Karen Morley, and the hilariously scenery-chomping Marie Dressler. It was this film that first illustrated, for me, Harlow’s true talent, as both a comedienne and a dramatic actress.
“Who d’ya think you’re talking to?”
Oscar-worthy scene: Even though I’ve seen Dinner at Eight more times than I care to count, I’m still riveted by the scene where Kitty and her husband, Dan (Wallace Beery), are dressing for the dinner party of the film’s title. The scene begins on a simple note, with Dan innocently inquiring after his wife’s state of readiness: “How you comin’, Kitten?” But Kitty’s response provides an immediate indication that this will be no pleasant exchange of information: “I’ve told you a million times not to talk to me while I’m doing my lashes!” The conversation rapidly devolves into a nasty – but hilarious – shouting match, during which Kitty declares her refusal to accompany Dan to the nation’s capital to mingle with “a lot of sour-faced frumps with last year’s clothes on.” The barbs fly fast and furious, with Kitty more than holding her own against her brash, blustering (and sometimes physically abusive) spouse.
Oscar-worthy quote: “Who d’ya think you’re talking to – your first wife out in Montana? That poor thing with the flat chest that didn’t have nerve enough to talk up to you? Washing your greasy overalls, cooking and slaving in some lousy mining shack? No wonder she died.”
Rita Hayworth: Gilda in Gilda (1946)
It’s my firm belief that Rita Hayworth’s extraordinary beauty and natural sensuality prevented her from being appreciated for her talent as an actress. If you can get past these external attributes, Gilda serves as an ideal vehicle for demonstrating that Hayworth could do more than just sing, dance, and look pretty. Don’t get me wrong, though – in the film’s title role of a good-time gal who weds a psychologically twisted cartel head, but is in love with his loyal second-in-command, Hayworth definitely sings, dances, and looks pretty.
“Sure, I’m decent.”
Oscar-worthy scene: I adore the film’s introduction of Gilda – the audience experiences a sense of keen expectation before she even appears on screen, prompted by her melodic humming to a recording of “Put the Blame on Mame” and the responsive look on the face of Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford). We finally see her after her new groom, Ballin (George Macready) asks her if she’s decent. Following a flip of her auburn mane and a flash of bare shoulder, her face comes into view as she playfully asks, “Me?” Spotting Johnny, who just happens to be her former lover, Gilda’s eyes briefly harden and freeze, and she concludes: “Sure. I’m decent.” Hayworth dominates the remainder of the scene, tossing off bon-mots and double entendres like so much confetti: “Johnny is such a hard name to remember,” she purrs dismissively, “and so easy to forget.”
Oscar-worthy quote: “I can never get a zipper to close. Maybe that stands for something, what do you think?”
Miriam Hopkins: Lily in Trouble in Paradise (1932)
Witty, intelligent and urbane, Trouble in Paradise is a film-lover’s delight and Miriam Hopkins is an absolute joy to watch as a pickpocket who falls in love with a thief, Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall), and teams up with him to fleece the wealthy owner of a perfume company. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch, the film was fairly teeming with innuendo – in fact, just three short years after its initial release, with the Production Code then firmly in effect, the film was not approved for reissue, and wasn’t seen again for more than 30 years. Make sure you don’t wait that long to catch Hopkins’s performance!
How did Gaston manage to filch Lilly’s garter? Hmm.
Oscar-worthy scene: The scene where Lily meets Gaston is sheer perfection. Invited to dine at his villa, Lily is masquerading as a countess, while Gaston is posing as a baron – neither of them seemingly aware of the other’s true vocation. During the meal, the two blithely produce a series of items that they have stolen from each other, finally collapsing into an embrace as they realize they have found, in each other, their true soul mates. My lame description, believe me, does not begin to do this scene justice. It is something to behold.
Oscar-worthy quote: “Darling, remember, you are Gaston Monescu. You are a crook. I want you as a crook. I love you as a crook. I worship you as a crook. Steal, swindle, rob. Oh, but don’t become one of those useless, good-for-nothing gigolos.”
Agnes Moorehead: Madge Rapf in Dark Passage (1947)
Unlike most of the films represented in this list, Dark Passage isn’t necessarily one of my favorites. Oh, it’s certainly watchable – its stars, Bogie and Bacall, always are – and the “subjective camera” perspective employed for the first third of the feature is attention-grabbing, at the very least. And the plot – about an escaped convicted murderer who joins forces with a sympathetic young artist in an effort to prove his innocence – is mighty fine. It’s just not one of those features that frequently finds its way off my shelf and into my VCR, if you know what I mean. But Agnes Moorehead, as Madge Rapf, the shrill and shrewish friend of the artist, is a revelation – talk about characters you love to hate! That’s putting it mildly. Truth be told, I adored loathing her, was crazy about despising her, and quite fancied my extreme dislike for her.
Madge didn’t scare easy. (But she fell hard, if you know what I mean.)
Oscar-worthy scene: The scene where Madge is confronted and accused of murder by Vincent Parry (Humphrey Bogart) is practically a tour-de-force. One would expect a woman challenged in such a manner to crumple in a veritable heap, admit her culpability, and beg for mercy, but not Madge. She never backed down, never batted an eye, never gave an inch. (Too bad she tried to hide behind that curtain, though.)
Oscar-worthy quote: “I’ve cried myself to sleep at night because of you. She’s got you now. She wants you very badly doesn’t she? She’s willing to run away with you and keep on running and ruin everything for herself. But she wouldn’t care because she’d be with you and that’s what she wants. Well, she doesn’t have you now. She’ll never have you. Nobody will ever have you! And that’s the way I want it!”
Barbara Stanwyck: Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity (1944)
I make no secret of the fact that Double Indemnity is my best-loved film noir – so it stands to reason that one of my favorite femmes is Phyllis Dietrichson, that mercenary murderess who Barbara Stanwyck brought to life in such an unforgettable fashion. Unlike most of the women being recognized here, Stanwyck was nominated for an Oscar for her role in the film – it was just her bad luck that she offered us Phyllis in the same year we were introduced to Ingrid Bergman’s Paula in Gaslight.
“There’s a speed limit in this state.”
Oscar-worthy scene: I go ga-ga almost every time Stanwyck crosses the screen, but a standout scene is the first encounter between Phyllis and her soon-to-be lover, Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), which is highlighted by a rapid-fire, innuendo-charged metaphor involving speeding tickets and motorcycle cops (“There’s a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour.”)
Oscar-worthy quote: “We went into this together and we’re coming out at the end together. It’s straight down the line for both of us. Remember?”
Margaret Sullavan: Mary Lane in Only Yesterday (1933)
This little lady is deserving of an Oscar for this role if for no other reason than she was able to act with a straight face opposite the lumber-like John Boles. (Sorry, John Boles fans. I digress.) Sullavan was everything she needed to be in this five-hankie weeper about a belle who gets pregnant after a one-night stand with a soldier during World War I, and then must raise the child alone when the soldier fails to recognize her after the war. Sullavan’s performance was all the more impressive because it was the 24-year-old actress’s screen debut.
The morning after . . .
Oscar-worthy scene: When the troops return to New York, Mary can scarcely wait to reunite with the father of her child, Jim Emerson (John Boles), and rushes to find him during the city’s ticker tape parade. She spies him among the throng of marching soldiers and excitedly makes her way through the crowd, following him as he breaks ranks to greet a group of cheering friends. Catching up to him, Mary stands beaming as Jim plants kisses on the women gathered to greet him, then politely shakes Mary’s hand before turning back to his pals. When one of the women asks Jim about Mary, Jim replies that he doesn’t know who she is. “I thought she was with you,” he comments. The look in Mary’s eyes is heartbreaking.
Oscar-worthy quote: “Don’t think. Why think? Just live in the moment. This moment.”
Gloria Swanson: Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (1950)
In this classic, Gloria Swanson portrayed a reclusive silent film star whose time warp-like existence is shattered by the arrival of a hack screenwriter. Unfortunately, Swanson suffered from the same stroke of bad luck that Stanwyck did a few years earlier – only worse! Swanson was nominated for her portrayal of Norma Desmond, but she was not only up against the fantastic Judy Holliday, who won the Best Actress Oscar that year for Born Yesterday, but both Bette Davis and Anne Baxter in All About Eve, and Eleanor Parker in Caged. The spate of awesome female performances that year was a boon for moviegoers – but a huge bummer for Gloria, who would never again be offered a role of this caliber.
Swanson was a wonder in this scene.
Oscar-worthy scene: The New Year’s Eve party is an awesome showcase for Swanson’s thespianic (I don’t think this is a word, but it should be!) capabilities. Here, she masterfully exhibits a wide range of moods and emotions – an almost motherly pride at the handsome appearance of the party’s only guest, screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden); girlishly flirtatious during their first dance on the polished tile floor; boldly matter-of-fact in her first declaration of love; carefree and expectant as she looks forward to the future (“What a wonderful next year it’s going to be. What fun we’re going to have. I’ll fill the pool for you.”); subtle yet derisive in her reference to Joe’s gigolo status; and, finally, a flash of passionate jealousy, manifested in one of the best movie slaps this side of Kirk Douglas and Jane Greer in Out of the Past.
Oscar-worthy quote: “No one ever leaves a star. That’s what makes one a star.”
Gene Tierney: Ellen Berent Harland in Leave Her to Heaven (1945)
It’s filmed in glorious Technicolor, but trust me, Leave Her to Heaven is dark, dark, dark. And Gene Tierney is the reason why. She plays a psychopathic beauty – your basic nutcase in gorgeous clothing, if you will – whose cloying possessiveness for the men in her life literally leaves bodies in its wake.
Oscar-worthy scene: If you haven’t seen this film, watch for a spoiler dead ahead. (No pun intended.) I love the scene where Ellen takes her physically challenged young brother-in-law, Danny (Darryl Hickman), out for a swim on the lake. Ostensibly (don’t you love that word?), she’s there to help him build up his strength so he can surprise his big brother (and Ellen’s extra-beloved hubby) with his paddling prowess. Only trouble is, the little tyke is putting a crimp in her plans for a happy home, and Ellen doesn’t suffer obstacles gladly. So when Danny starts to tire and first asks, then begs, for Ellen’s help, she sits in her canoe, stone-faced behind her Foster Grants, and coolly lets him drown. Yowza.
Oscar-worthy quote: “I’ll never let you go. Never, never, never.”
Lana Turner: Cora Smith in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)
Who can forget Lana Turner in her white shorts, midriff top and turban, framed like a portrait in the doorway, coolly applying her lipstick like the devastating diva she was? Not me! But this iconic scene was not the only favor Turner brought to the party – in her role as an unhappy diner owner’s wife whose fling with a drifter leads to murder, Turner demonstrated her ability to evoke a spate of visceral reactions in moviegoers, from sympathy to loathing, and back again.
Let’s just say she wasn’t happy.
Oscar-worthy scene: I can’t get enough of the courthouse scene after Cora is double-crossed by her lover, Frank (John Garfield), and learns that she is charged not only with the murder of her husband but the attempted murder of Frank as well. Escorted into the waiting room where Frank sits alone, Cora first stalks about like a caged lioness, every now and then stopping to toss her tresses or shoot a withering glance in Frank’s general direction. When she finally does speak, she fairly spits every word, leaving no doubt regarding her utter contempt for her lover and her resolve to settle the score. She’s magnificent!
Oscar-worthy quote: “If it’s the last thing I do, I’ll put you out of business. There must be a law, even for lawyers.”
In tribute to each of these non-Oscar-winning winners, I raise a proverbial glass, privileged to celebrate their marvelously unforgettable performances. They may not have heard their names read aloud as winners at an Academy Awards venue, but it’s my honor to shower them with accolades here. Congratulations, you fabulous, fantastic, first-rate femmes!
This post is part of the month-long 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon, sponsored by Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken & Freckled, and Paula’s Cinema Club. Please take some time to read the many excellent posts being offered as part of this outstanding Oscar-themed extravaganza!
You only owe it to yourself! (You really do!)