Oscar ’62 Revisited, Part Two: The Contenders

Thank God for Baby Jane Hudson.

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

While the five Best Picture nominees from 1962 offer a nice range of crowd-pleasing entertainment, the bulk of the other top contenders make a dour bunch indeed. Here we have a pile of heavy, somber works built around bold issues, adult themes, and Acting with a capital A. Portraits of addicts, the mentally and physically ill, and the morally corrupt filled the top categories; even Debbie Downer would tell this bunch to tone it down a notch.

But there, in the middle of Sweet Bird of Youth and Days of Wine and Roses, we get What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, an over-the-top, deliriously morbid, and completely bat-shit chiller that managed to not only become one of the year’s top box office hits but a major critical smash as well, effectively reviving the dwindling careers of its two stars and rebranding them as camp queens.

There’s a meta thrill in seeing real-life rivals Bette Davis and Joan Crawford be so horrible to each other on screen, their characters pining for the fame of their youths. Both actors give tremendous performances, but while Crawford goes for nuance in her bid to remain likeable (she had, over the years, taken to playing weaker and more vulnerable women in a bid to win over audiences), Davis goes full throttle in the other direction, understanding just how much an impact she could make by approaching self-parody. She dolls herself up in eerie makeup designed to accentuate her age – the ol’ Oscar tradition of an actress uglifying herself – and lets herself become lost in the mind of a deranged loser. Baby Jane is a movie built around squalor and delusion, and Davis underlines both in bold magic marker.

Whether it was Davis’ flamboyancy or the simple matter of a juicier part, Davis walked away with a Best Actress nomination while Crawford did not. Despite both stars being previous winners, both had also spent recent years itching for such a repeat prize. Having only one of them finally get the chance only heightened their rivalry. Davis was desperate to become the first three-time winning performer and was certain this was her year, which gave Crawford the perfect opening to rub salt into the wound if her co-star were to lose.

In one of Oscar history’s soapiest and most infamous legends, Crawford offered to accept the trophy on behalf of any nominee unable to attend the ceremony. So it wasn’t enough for Davis to be standing in the wings, waiting to burst on stage victorious, only to hear Anne Bancroft’s name instead of her own – she then had to watch as Crawford basked in the spotlight, holding a Best Actress Oscar. (Some tellings claim Crawford dramatically shoved her way past Davis in the process, a devilish touch.) Crawford then paraded around the after parties with Bancroft’s trophy, treating it as her own, all in eyesight of a dejected Davis.

(Baby Jane wound up losing in four of its five nominated categories, winning only for Best Costume Design – Black and White. Years later, Davis was quoted as saying, “It would have meant a million more dollars to our film if I had won. Joan was thrilled I hadn’t.”)

Both Baby Jane and its catfight infamy brought a much-needed juiciness to the mainly stoic 1962 lineup. The only other non-Best Picture nominated major contender for the year that could also be considered anything resembling fun is Divorce, Italian Style, a biting comedy that raked in nods for Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Screenplay.

I must admit to not being much of a fan of Pietro Germi’s send-up of the Italian class system; the comedy is too broad, with a bombastic, often cartoonish tone that undermines the intended subtleties of the satire, while the social commentary doesn’t translate well fifty years and a few thousand miles away. The movie’s nominations feel to me as though they came not on their own merit but on the wave of appreciation for Italian cinema at the time, the Academy still giddy over Marcello Mastroianni and La Dolce Vita, a wave powerful enough to give the film’s writers a win1.

Two other titles were also nominated for Best Director without a corresponding Best Picture nomination, the most famous of which being The Miracle Worker. What could’ve been a mawkish effort – let’s face it, neither the “gee whiz isn’t this inspiring?” angle nor the wild physicality of the leads calls for subtlety – comes off with an unexpected grace, thanks to director Arthur Penn and stars Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke (who reprised their Broadway roles here, and who, as mentioned above, wound up winning Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, respectively). The film dampens the maudlin tone with a roughness, in both the visuals and the performances, that underlines the honest humanity of the story.

Curiously, there were two films in 1962 to be adapted from Broadway plays written by William Gibson and starring Anne Bancroft. The other was Two for the Seesaw, and, unlike The Miracle Worker, its producers declined to cast Bancroft in the screen version. That role went instead to Shirley MacLaine, with Robert Mitchum taking over on screen for Henry Fonda, of all people. Directed by Robert Wise, Seesaw is a lovely, heartbreaking tale of passing romance, and it was considered a top contender for Best Actress. However, MacLaine wound up snubbed, while Bancroft… well, you know. (Consider it a preview of the 1964 Oscars, when Julie Andrews found herself passed over for My Fair Lady, only to win Best Actress anyway for Mary Poppins.) Seesaw received only two nominations, for Best Cinematography – Black and White and Best Original Song. It lost both.

The final Best Picture-less Best Director nod went to Frank Perry for what could be the least remembered major nominee, David and Lisa. (The film only earned one other nomination, for Best Adapted Screenplay.) It’s most certainly an odd duck, a self-important social message movie that’s embarrassing in spots, yet riveting in others. Set at a school for teenagers with psychological troubles, David and Lisa plays at times less like a film and more like an actors’ workshop, with the cast overdoing it in their interpretations of “creepy crazies.” (The script doesn’t help much; Janet Margolin is quite effective as Lisa, a girl with multiple personalities, but the character is written with the ridiculous tic of only speaking in rhymes.) But then there’s Keir Dullea, who’s so good in the lead role, we come to genuinely feel for his character despite his social crudities, and Howard Da Silva, whose warm yet reserved turn as David’s doctor is the best thing about the movie, revealing a complexity of character often missing in such roles. Those performances aside, David and Lisa is best viewed today as a sort of time capsule displaying a surprisingly positive, if still hyperbolic, early-60s view of mental illness.

Blake Edwards’ Days of Wine and Roses shares with Baby Jane the honor of being the most-nominated film of the 1962 Oscars to not land a Best Picture or Best Director nod. Among its five mentions were nominations for Jack Lemmon for Best Actor and Lee Remick for Best Actress, and of all the “tackling society’s problems with capital-A Acting!” movies to come out of 1962, this is the biggest offender. Sure, it means well, but it’s ridiculous and campy in ways it doesn’t intend – one should not start making Kids in the Hall “Girl Drink Drunk” jokes in the middle of this thing as a reaction to its movie-of-the-week sincerity, and yet…

Overly earnest portrayals of addiction also weigh down Sweet Bird of Youth, the Tennessee Williams adaptation that earned three acting nods (and a win for Ed Begley as Best Supporting Actor), and Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Sidney Lumet’s take on Eugene O’Neill, which earned Katharine Hepburn a Best Actress nomination (yet, surprisingly, no other nods for what is most certainly a cast loaded with Oscar-bait turns). The approaches the two films take are wildly different: Sweet Bird opens up the story in widescreen Technicolor, while Journey, with its tight black and white framing and limited locations, comes off almost as a filmed stage performance. (O’Neill penned the screenplay, adding to that result.)

Journey is, despite its maddeningly sluggish pace and stagey feel, the better of the two, Lumet’s quiet handling of the material and inventive, stage-inspired visual touches trumping Richard Brooks’ sweaty, almost ridiculously lurid direction of Sweet Bird. To be fair, Tennessee Williams himself earns partial blame, as the source material for this oddball blend of two themes never gel – the humbled hero’s return and the wicked politics of the South – and trips over itself too often in trying to get to the sex and drugs.

Rounding out the major nominees, we have the prison drama Birdman of Alcatraz, with lovely performances from Burt Lancaster, Thelma Ritter, and Telly Savalas (all nominated) more than making up for an overlong run time (and, despite that, a rushed third act); Billy Budd, whose thoughtful study of justice and British Naval history still thrill, and whose title character earned Terence Stamp a questionable nomination in the supporting, not lead, category; and The Manchurian Candidate.

Yes, let’s end with The Manchurian Candidate, the best movie of 1962 to not earn a Best Picture nod2. Despite its status as a classic today, the Academy only gave notice to Angela Lansbury, whose turn as the evil Queen of Hearts made waves in 1962 just as it still does today. It’s a brutal, complex, wonderfully wicked performance, one of movie history’s best villains – and no offense to Patty Duke, but Lansbury should’ve won.

1The Original Screenplay category that year was an odd assortment, to say the least. Competing against Divorce were the heavy biopic Freud (also nominated for Best Original Score), the heavier Bergman drama Through a Glass Darkly (which, in a twist courtesy one of the Oscars’ stranger rules regarding eligibilty, had already won the Best Foreign Language Film prize the previous year), the impenetrable art house import Last Year at Marienbad, and the Doris Day/Cary Grant sex romp That Touch of Mink. Not surprisingly, the latter is my favorite of the bunch, a wildly funny (if occasionally embarrassing in its dated sexism) and wickedly smart comedy that handles its “let’s talk about sex” attitudes far more entertainingly than the year’s other sexed-up efforts, such as Sweet Bird of Youth, Best Song nominee Walk on the Wild Side, and Best Adapted Screenplay nominee (and arguably Kubrick’s worst film) Lolita. (For those keeping score, Mink earned two other nods: Best Art Direction – Color and Best Sound.)

2A runner-up for that distinction is The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, sorely overlooked in every category except Costume Design – Black and White; the movie contains some of the best work from John Wayne, James Stewart, and John Ford, not that the Academy bothered to notice.

Note: As with part one of this series, Mason Wiley and Damien Bona’s Inside Oscar served as an invaluable source for this article.

%d bloggers like this: