To what I assume is the surprise of nobody whatsoever, I here present a sequel to last week’s list. It is shorter, because I see no reason not to err on the side of niceness: I have said enough shit about the Academy to last me for years, so I think merely citing the five worst winners in each acting category will do just fine.
5. Katharine Hepburn, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)
The most extreme case in Oscar history of “the right people winning awards for the wrong movies”, only one of the four Oscars given to Katherine the Great (for The Lion in Winter) was attached to a performance that could plausibly described as one of her best. Of the other three, the worst by far was as the liberal wife in Stanley Kramer’s airless social studies chamber drama, a performance that won largely as a present for outliving Spencer Tracy, and surely not because the voters saw something awards-worthy in her collection of moist-eyed, admiring looks, and her ability to tremble on cue.
4. Shirley Booth, Come Back, Little Sheba (1952)
A rocky stage-to-screen transfer made significantly worse by the leading lady’s inability to comprehend the difference between the two media. Blowsy and manic, full of over-determined, fussy gestures that play like somebody who’d heard of the Method but didn’t actually know what it consisted of, Booth lumbers through the movie as more a parody of the slow-witted housewife she’s playing than as an honest attempt to bring her to life, and her big stabs at emotional outbursts are so studied and shrill as to be worse than embarrassing melodrama.
3. Sally Field, Places in the Heart (1984)
Conventional wisdom holds that it was the “you really like me!” speech at the Oscars that cost Field so much industry respect in ’85; could it not also be that she won for such a shrill part in such a chintzy movie, and everybody just wanted to forget about it all as quickly as possible? An attempt at a similar kind of strong, self-reliant woman to the one that won Field her first Oscar for the fine work she did in Norma Rae, but this time undone by a tacky screenplay and the actress’s unflagging tendency to substitute clenched expressions and declamatory line readings for psychological shading.
2. Loretta Young, The Farmer’s Daughter (1947)
Yumpin’ yiminy. Ethnic humor has a secure, if unlovable place in Hollywood history – the career of John Ford would be unthinkable without it – but did they really need to toss a statue at Young’s outlandish Swedish cartoon in a movie that plays like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington as rewritten by Eugene O’Neill and Preston Sturges on a mutual absinthe bender? Even in a somewhat rickety set of nominees, there were only better choices than this failure to create a plausible character or sell the movie’s broad comedy.
1. Mary Pickford, Coquette (1928-’29)
To be fair, a lot of the things we slam for being “bad” Oscar winners are more like “not-good”; not up to any standard we’d like to associate with American film’s highest honor, but also more mediocre and forgettable than truly poor. Such is the case with nearly every performance criticised in this post. But oh, dearie me, not with 36-year-old Pickford’s gargoylish turn as a daffy teen ingenue with a flutey voice and hypnotically garish physical carriage, a worst-case-imaginable scenario for the kind of performance silent icons give in their very first sound performance. Largely disliked and regarded as a career win even in 1929, it’s almost bad enough to be captivating – a real actress, one of the most popular of the era, really thought that this was the proper manner in which to play anything resembling human behavior, and that is horribly fascinating, in the way that it’s hard not to stare at a really gruesome car accident. The film is a dodgy bit of business throughout, but nothing that Pickford does at any moment fails to make it much worse than it had to be.
5. Roberto Benigni, Life Is Beautiful (1998)
A movie for which I have a rather intense and cold dislike; not only for Benigni’s crude clowning and not only for the jaw-dropping ineffectiveness of same in the second-half concentration camp scenes, though certainly those things do not help. Frankly, the first half is not better, though it is considerably less tasteless: syrupy, pre-ordained magical realist romance that serves to give Benigni’s unfunny riff on silent comedians so much airtime that if you’re even marginally unsympathetic to Italy’s national love of desperately wacky clowns, by the 30-minute mark Beningini’s one-note-fits-all mugging will have started to feel a bit like a war crime itself.
4. Warner Baxter, In Old Arizona (1928-’29)
Ah, the second Academy Awards; the year when out of seven winners, four absolutely sucked, one is lost, and one might as well be. Baxter’s not nearly as ripe as Pickford, but his plastered expression is just as achingly typical of the wrong kind of early sound performance, saddled with an unstable approach to ethnicity and a script whose artificial grubbiness was not at all friendly to an actor who was much, much better in his sophisticated roles than in his everyman ones. Soapy and bland.
3. Spencer Tracy, Captains Courageous (1937)
There doesn’t seem to be much middle ground with Tracy: either you regard him as one of the steadiest and strongest actors of a generation or you emphatically don’t. Barring one or two exceptions here and there, I’m cozily in the latter camp, and his mangled Portuguese accent (Christ, with the ethnic roles already!), and the unchecked smugness of his allegedly humble, uneducated fisherman turns an already shady prop character in a wheezy coming of age story into a straight-up joke, to the extreme misfortune of the film around him.
2. George Arliss, Disraeli (1929-’30)
A history-making performance: the first time somebody won an Oscar for playing a real-life figure. In this case, Arliss has the bravery to depict the 19th Century Prime Minister as a antropoid lizard. There’s something immensely off-putting about Arliss’s limitations in this role, veering with little color between a stab at political insight that verges on cackling monstrousness – and he’s the film’s hero – or a tendency towards adopting a pose and moving as little as possible, including his jaw when he’s speaking. Later sound performances would work out better for the actor, when his inclination towards whispery line reading wouldn’t meet up against the limitations of 1929 sound recording technology.
1. Cliff Robertson, Charly (1968)
An extraordinarily shallow sketch of mental retardation as the state of talking slow and being really really sad that you can’t read. It’s hard to say whether it’s more boring or offensive, mostly because it goes so far into the red on both counts: there is absolutely nothing that Robertson does that goes beyond what any given high school drama student would pull out if you instructed him to play a mentally handicapped man. With al kinds of noble sensitivity, of course, though what passed as sensitive in ’68 is not very much like what passes for sensitive in 2013.
5. Estelle Parsons, Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
There is undoubtedly more to this performance than what feels like a ten-minute scene of ostensibly comic screaming in terror; but not by much. A one-note performance that feels like it was rewarded solely because the Academy was too spooked to reward the movie in any more important major categories.
4. Miyoshi Umeki, Sayonara (1957)
Truly and uniquely inexplicable. The number of unwritten Academy rules that had to be overlooked for this performance by a non-American in her first English-language film to be nominated, let alone to win, is enough to make you assume that there must have been something really spectacular to catch their attention back in ’57. But no, it’s a totally anonymous performance of a functional role that smacks of condescending PC racism: “oh, let’s throw an Oscar to an Asian”, and clearly any old Asian would do.
3. Olympia Dukakis, Moonstruck (1987)
Every cranky, world-weary sitcom mother with an acid tongue ever, only since this one was in a movie, and portrayed by a an inexplicably well-respected actress, they decided to give her a statue. There’s no meaningful difference between Dukakis’s Rose Castorini and Estelle Getty’s contemporaneous Sophia Petrillo on The Golden Girls except that weekly exposure on a sitcom made the latter figure significantly more likable.
2. Josephine Hull, Harvey (1950)
Did somebody mention well-regarded stage actresses with somewhat lousy film careers winning Oscars for playing grating exaggerations of wacky old women? Because Hull’s utterly superficial turn as Jimmy Stewart’s shouty aunt threatens, frequently, to single-handedly sink a charming trifle of a movie that already had some issues negotiating the trip from Broadway to Hollywood, with her coarse, gruesomely flightly glosses on “comic” neuroticism.
1. Gale Sondergaard, Anthony Adverse (1936)
This much is true, at least: Sondergaard, the first winner in this category’s existence, was a supporting player and not a movie star. And that, by and large, was for good reason, never more obviously displayed than here in her very first movie performance as a tedious adventure movie villainess, all vamping and cheap exoticism, with absolutely nothing that resembles “acting” in any way more meaningful than posing for a still photograph qualifies as performance. Humiliatingly unpersuasive in any register beyond the one where she’s meant to look sexy.
5. John Houseman, The Paper Chase (1973)
Many people won Oscars for the first performance; few did it at the age of 71. And that says it all, really: Houseman wasn’t an actor, but a tremendously important stage producer, and this award (and really, this role), was nothing but a thank you from a grateful industry. Which is sweet, but we typically do and I think ought to expect more from our Oscar winners than the ability to stand in front of the camera and deliver poppy dialogue in an angry tone, which is the one and only thing this “performance” consists of.
4. Michael Caine, The Cider House Rules (1999)
One of the most inconsistent great actors in film history not only took the Oscar out of the hands of two of the most-deserving nominees this category saw in the whole of the 1990s, he did it with one of the most treacly, surface-level performances of his career. All sentiment and no character, he was part of this category’s habit in this era of drifiting to a performance with a good catchphrase, insofar as the “Princes of Maine” bit counts as “good”.
3. Walter Brennan, Come and Get It (1936)
Another bit of jaw-dropping ethnic caricature, as Brennan tries to wrap his extremely distinctive voice around a comic strip Swede, and fails epically. It’s actually a pretty solid Western melodrama in all the ways that matter, but Brennan’s odious comic relief is a ghastly nightmare even by the standards of the decade where such figures reached their absolute, all-time nadir. The great character actor, winning this category’s first-ever award, was never worse.
2. George Chakiris, West Side Story (1961)
In a film unaccountably plagued by poor casting choices, none backfired more spectacularly than the Greek-American’s vibrantly horrible embodiment of Latino clichés, barking out his lines in a self-consciously fiery tone that makes even Natalie Wood’s famously ill-judged performance seem toned down and clever. There’s a heightened quality to musical acting, of course, but the messy, bellowing work Chakiris turns in isn’t “heightened”, it’s just plain gaudy.
1. John Mills, Ryan’s Daughter (1970)
The only winning performance that even slightly gives Mary Pickford’s Coquette freak show a run for its money as the worst. It starts with a gimmick that announces much too proudly its own possibilities for being turned into something broad and tacky – the mute village idiot – and Mills proceeds to live down to the basest possibilities of the role in every way imaginable and several that he had to invent just for the occasion. The sepulchral 206-minute film needs every scrap of vitality it can manage to find, but the exaggerated awfulness of whatever Mills is up to here isn’t exactly memorable in ways that work to the film’s benefit.