March is Women’s History Month, (it’s also Save Your Vision Month and National Eye Donor Month, which seems a bit of a contradiction), which gives me an excuse to dedicate a film blog to women on screen and, since the availability of plum roles for older women haven’t kept pace with the march of women’s history, I’ve decided to list a few exceptional and entertaining performances by actresses “of a certain age.”
Viva la Diva – There are some actresses (and actors) whose persona will always overwhelm the role. In the borderline campy, Fritz Lang-directed revenge Western Rancho Notorious, (1952) Marlene Dietrich is an ex-chanteuse who harbors outlaws for a percentage of their take, but she’s always DIETRICH, all caps, and so you’re willing to put up with some weak performances and the annoying balladeer narration just to watch her belt Get Away, Young Men, with that worldly ennui.
Don’t Mess With the Little Lady – In the classic Night of the Hunter (1955), seductive sociopath Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) is no match for the deceptively fragile Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), who gives asylum to helpless children. Among the most memorable scenes: Gish, cradling a shotgun, accompanies the lurking Mitchum in Leaning On the Everlasting Arms. If Gish handles the gun like a pro, it may be due to the fact that she was given shooting lessons by cowboy/outlaw/ex-con/actor A. J. Jennings.
Nobody Loves You Like Your Mother – In the remake of the classic tearjerker, Imitation of Life (1959), Juanita Moore elevates the self-sacrificing mother above the cliché with a luminous performance as a black woman rejected by the light-skinned daughter who has passed herself off as white. If your heart doesn’t break when Moore represents herself as a former nanny in front of her daughter’s white friend, you need to check your pulse. It’s difficult to believe that Moore was only 36 when she delivered this intuitive, mature, Oscar-nominated performance.
I Haven’t Lost My Wits, I’ve Just Misplaced Them – The scatterbrained old lady is a rather shopworn film stereotype, but Margaret Rutherford brings a lovable artlessness to her award-winning performance in The V.I.Ps(1963). As one of many high-profile passengers stranded at a snowbound airport, Rutherford steals the film from the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Maggie Smith and Orson Welles with a delightful turn as a down-at-heels duchess forced to find employment to maintain her ancestral estate.
Dirty Double Crosser – A plum acting challenge is to play twins and Bette Davis took on twin turns twice, in A Stolen Life and the somewhat similar Dead Ringer(1964). In the latter, she is wealthy Margaret and her struggling, embittered twin Edie. The knowledge that Margaret tricked Edie’s former beau into marriage is the final straw; Edie kills her sister, takes on her identity, and realizes too late that Margaret’s life has its own set of entanglements. Davis manages to be both touching and tough-as-nails, and when Bette/Margaret walks into Bette/Edith’s shabby flat, Bette Davis manages to give the line, “A dump?” a wry, inside-jokish spin. Campy, perhaps, but the 60s would have been a dull film decade without Davis.
He’s May, She’s December – Three years after 72-year-old Ruth Gordon stepped up to accept her Oscar (for Rosemary’s Baby) and said, “I can’t tell you how encouragin’ a thing like this is”, she appeared in the cult classic, Harold and Maude (1971). Harold (Bud Cort), a young man obsessed with destruction and death meets and falls for Maude (Ruth Gordon), a 79-year-old woman with an irrepressible joie de vivre. The further a love story deviates from the mean, the more skilled an actor has to be to sell it; despite some dated anti-war bits, and a limp subplot about computer matchmaking, Gordon’s free-spirited performance makes the implausible completely credible. Unlike many films of the era that we look back on with “What did I see in that?”, Harold and Mauderemains as fresh and original as it was forty years ago.
One Bit Wonder – Occasionally a performer will show up for one scene and neatly steal the show. Anne Bancroft proved herself to be quite the scene thief in the clever thriller, Malice (1993). As Nicole Kidman’s con artist mother she wises up Kidman’s poor sap of a husband in a wry, caustic and thoroughly convincing tête-à-tête that is the linchpin of the film’s elaborate plot. Since being nominated for a single scene is not without precedent (William Hurt in A History of Violence, for example) I was surprised that this star turn by Bancroft was not more widely appreciated.
One Flick Wonder – Crossing Delancey(1988) is my favorite romantic comedy, and it’s impossible to watch it without a sense of amazement that this is stage actress Reizl Boyzk’s only film performance. (She did a couple television guest shots). As the downtown grandmother who sets out to arrange a marriage for her career-girl granddaughter, Bozyk is sly, engaging and completely in her element in front of the camera.
Classical Muse – There are certain literary characters that ambitious actors want to have a crack at – Hamlet, Madame Bovary, Dr. Jekyll and/or Mr. Hyde. Among the most challenging for an actress is Dickens’ scheming and pitiable Miss Havisham. There have been at least a dozen Miss Havishams, and another Great Expectations in the works, but in my humble opinion, the best of the lot has been Charlotte Rampling in the 1999 television version. Rampling gets it just right, both the pride and vulnerability, the insight and suggestion of self-loathing. The best performance in the best rendition in Great Expectations.
The Real Deal – I have always thought that the most astute biopics are the snapshots, the ones consolidated around a crisis point and covering a limited time span. Margaret (2009) deals with the events leading to Margaret Thatcher’s resignation. I did not see Iron Lady; however it is difficult for me to believe that any performance could have exceeded Lindsay Duncan’s rendering of Thatcher. Duncan’s instincts are on point; she knows precisely when to expose a fissure in the iron façade, and develops a portrait that suggests the only humanizing aspect of power is the loss of it.