Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Caged

Caged
seen on TV @ TCM
6.10.13

The only reason I wanted to see Caged was so I could fill a nagging gap in my personal film knowledge. The 1950 Best Actress Oscar race was an epic one. You had a silent film legend, Gloria Swanson, up for Sunset Boulevard, in a show-stopping, bravura performance that would be forever immortalized in film history (and also my all-time favorite film). 

Then you had Bette Davis in an equally larger-than-life performance in All About Eve - but it's eclipsed somewhat by Anne Baxter in the same movie, and she's nominated as a co-lead. It's justifiable; she plays the Eve in the movie's title, after all, but Davis dominates the movie so much that it  does seem wrong to relegate her to supporting. And then you had my girl, Judy Holliday, in Born Yesterday, a comedic role, but one based on the Broadway play that she starred in - and thanks to her turn in Adam's Rib, she was definitely a star on the rise. 


I had never heard of Eleanor Parker, nor had I seen Caged, so for many years, she never loomed as largely in this race in my mind, so I had always thought of this as a four-woman race. So I was eager to finally see this movie last night, and I went into it knowing as little about it as possible, outside of TCM host Robert Osborne's introduction, of course. I didn't even know how old Parker was when she made the movie. I always pictured her as a matronly, middle-aged woman. Maybe it was because of the name "Eleanor." Made me think of Eleanor Roosevelt or something.

So Caged is a women-in-prison movie, though I knew enough not to expect anything along the lines of, say, Pam Grier in The Big Bird Cage. Parker's character is in stir for being talked into an armed robbery by her now-deceased newlywed husband, and as if that weren't bad enough, she's pregnant with his child too. The film follows her time in the big house and how it changes her, and of course, along the way we meet the expected colorful supporting cast of felons, administrators and the ever-present matron.


Parker definitely deserved her nomination. Her transformation from scared waif to hardened felon feels natural, given her circumstances. Yes, there are giggle-inducing moments of camp throughout the film (perhaps unavoidable, given the evolution of this sub-genre), but Parker carries this film the whole way through and even at the end, you still feel for her, knowing where her fate will take her. Look at these stills of Parker at a key turning point in the movie and you'll get an idea of the kind of turmoil her character goes through.

Now, the big question: did Parker deserve the Oscar? Tough question, given the competition. Holliday was the winner that season, and it's so difficult to compare comedy to drama. Then again, it's rare that the Academy even acknowledges comedic roles, much less anoints them as winners, so in that sense, Holliday triumphing over four dramatic roles is of great significance. There has long been a school of thought that says comedy is harder to pull off than  drama because what constitutes humor is so much more subjective. Holliday made it look ridiculously easy, but don't forget that she perfected the role on Broadway. And her Adam's Rib co-star Katharine Hepburn, someone who knew a thing or two about good acting, was a huge fan of hers.


It's probably safe to imagine that Davis and Baxter split the vote. How would you choose between these two? In every scene they share in Eve, you can feel the tension radiating between the two of them as they verbally jab and parry and spar with each other, like two prizefighters going the full fifteen rounds. Davis is the legend, the one everyone remembers most, but in truth, her performance is incomplete without Baxter's.

And then there's Swanson. When it comes to picking a winner, Oscar usually loves a good story; in other words, the larger context behind a given nominee, and if I had been around back then, I probably would've picked Swanson for the win because hers was such a good story: the comeback of a silent film star in a film about the comeback return of a silent film star, with metatextual overtones everywhere you look. Norma Desmond is one of those characters that transcends cinema and is part of pop culture at large. Even casual film fans have heard the line, "Alright, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up."


Could Parker have won? Well, let's see. Parker was the only nominee not in a Best Picture-nominated film, so that was a strike against her. You couldn't move Davis or Baxter into Supporting Actress, because both Celeste Holm and Thelma Ritter were also in the race, a sign of how deep the acting was in Eve (also including George Sanders, who won in Supporting Actor.) Plus, Caged ends on a down note, as does, to a lesser extent, Sunset and EveUltimately, Holliday's was the only feel-good role, and that may have been the deciding factor. No, the Oscars don't always recognize true quality, but in the 1950 season at least, they went five-for-five in the Best Actress race.

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