Turner Classic Movies Announces the Network's Choices For 10 Great Overlooked Performances

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December 13th, 2010

via press release:

Turner Classic Movies Announces the Network’s Choices
For 10 Great Overlooked Performances

George Burns, Hattie McDaniel, Marilyn Monroe, Laurence Olivier, Vincent Price
And Donald Sutherland Among Those Who Missed Widespread Awards Recognition


As Hollywood launches into its annual awards season, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) today unveiled the network’s list of 10 Great Overlooked Performances.

With this authoritative list, TCM sets out to recognize performances that didn’t get widespread awards recognition.  The list includes the work of well-known actors in little-known roles, such as Laurence Olivier in Carrie (1952) and Tyrone Power in Nightmare Alley (1947), as well as lesser-known performers in standout roles, such as Ann Savage in Detour (1945) and John Qualen in The Grapes of Wrath (1940).

The list includes brilliant comic turns by Hattie McDaniel in Alice Adams (1935) and Vincent Price in His Kind of Woman (1951); a poignant performance by George Burns in Going in Style (1979); Ida Lupino’s challenging work in Ladies in Retirement (1941); Donald Sutherland’s impassioned work in Ordinary People (1980); and Marilyn Monroe’s remarkably complex performance in Bus Stop (1956).

“Unfortunately, none of these performances received attention at award time.  With so many great performances year after year, it’s not surprising that many fall through the cracks,” said TCM host and film historian Robert Osborne.  “As a new awards season kicks into full swing in Hollywood, this is an ideal time to shine a spotlight on some superb unsung performances of the past.”

Here are the performances included on TCM’s list of 10 Great Overlooked Performances, listed in alphabetical order:
George Burns as Joe in Going in Style (1979)
Although he won an Oscar® for The Sunshine Boys (1975), George Burns didn’t get to play a character other than himself until four years later, when he starred in this dark comedy.  This time he actually dug into a character who was radically different than he was – and he did it superbly.  The ever-youthful Burns would say of the role, “I had to learn how to act old.”  Burns’ Joe is no elfin old man looking wryly back on his past.  Instead, he alternately rages against old age and falls into depression before suggesting to his friends (Art Carney and Lee Strasberg) that the best solution for their financial woes and sense of uselessness is to rob a bank.  Burns captures all of the anger and sadness of aging.  In one scene, his eyes fill with tears as he thinks of the past, only to have mourning turn to rage when he realizes he has lost control of his bladder.  It is acting at its finest, providing a solid anchor for this portrait of three men who refuse to go gently into that good night.

Ann Dvorak as Mary Ashlon in A Life of Her Own (1950)
For some actors, all it takes is a few minutes to steal a film.  Ann Dvorak walked off with this 1950 women’s picture in just under 10 minutes.  A Life of Her Own was supposed to be Lana Turner’s comeback film after two years on suspension.  Once Dvorak turned up as a has-been model drowning her fear of aging in alcohol, the picture was all hers.  In just a few scenes, she transitions from world-weary cynicism, as she teaches Turner the ropes of the modeling business, to growing despair, as she realizes her date for the evening is about to make a play for the younger model.  Dvorak’s career had all but stalled over a salary dispute with Warner Bros. when she took this role, and some consider her performance a rage against a business that had done her wrong.  She retired from the screen two years later.

Ida Lupino as Ellen Creed in Ladies in Retirement (1941)
After years of second-string projects at Warner Bros., Ida Lupino got to prove she was more than just “the poor man’s Bette Davis” when Columbia Pictures brought her back to her British roots for this fog-shrouded 1941 thriller.  Her work as a housekeeper-companion who’ll stop at nothing to find a home for her mentally ill sisters generates chills with the lift of an eyebrow.  Lupino keeps her face a porcelain mask as she focuses all of her character’s dementia in her eyes, which gradually transform from impersonal efficiency to steely obsession.  Despite being cast in a role that was considerably older than her 27 years, Lupino used a steady demeanor and sense of superiority create the illusion of maturity, even when playing scenes opposite her real-life husband, Louis Hayward.  Columbia’s decision to sell this film as a comedy confused audiences and very likely ruined its chance of awards recognition.

Hattie McDaniel as Malena Burns in Alice Adams (1935)
This 1935 romance is remembered today for containing one of Katharine Hepburn’s best early performances, and she always credited director George Stevens with helping soften her arrogant image to play the working-class girl who aspires to a life in society.  However, Hepburn wasn’t the only actress to get a boost out of Alice Adams.  In her 30th film, Hattie McDaniel (credited as Hattie McDaniels) got the chance to steal the show, with the stars’ and director’s support, as the slovenly rented maid who wants no part of Hepburn’s social pretensions.  Her one scene is a comic nightmare, as Hepburn’s menu, from hot soup to ice cream and coffee, proves a disastrous choice on a humid summer evening.  McDaniel’s presence – her lacy maid’s cap constantly falling askew as she plops the food on the table with a saucy “Here you” – makes the evening even worse, to the delight of generations of fans.  McDaniel often faced criticism from the African-American community for playing so many domestics.  With Alice Adams, she drew the ire of white Southerners, who were offended by her superior attitude toward her employers.  That attitude, however, would lead to her best performances, from her comic turn here to the heart-breaking Mammy in Gone With the Wind (1939), which made her the first black actor to win an Academy Award®.  That same attitude also served her well when she faced down her critics: “Why should I complain about making $700 a week playing a maid?  If I didn’t, I’d be making $7 a week being one.”

Marilyn Monroe as Cherie in Bus Stop (1956)
After studying with The Actors Studio, Marilyn Monroe was determined to draw on every painful memory from her past for her role as a small town singer – dubbed a “chantoosie” by her fans – courted by an idealistic cowboy.  She allowed herself to look under-nourished and performed her one musical number badly, “That Old Black Magic,” to capture the desperation of a woman who would never achieve her dreams.  As in her other great performance, Sugar Kane Kowalcyzk in Some Like It Hot (1959), the role is a central part of the legend of Marilyn – the beautiful, sensitive loser.  But the film’s success failed to bring her an Oscar nomination or much respect.  Reporters were more interested in signs of star temperament, as when she insisted co-star Hope Lange’s hair be darkened so as not to match hers, than the painstaking efforts she put into one of the best roles she would ever play.  Neither has the passing of time helped fans to appreciate Monroe’s performance, for many aspects of the film have not aged well.  In his dogged pursuit of his “Cherry,” cowboy Don Murray now seems less romantic than criminal – a grating sexual bully.  And Cherie’s ultimate capitulation puts into question all of the dreams that made her so touching.  Beyond the sexual politics, however, the film vividly reveals what Monroe could have done as an actress had Hollywood allowed her to re-invent herself.

Laurence Olivier as George Hurstwood in Carrie (1952)
While his wife, Vivien Leigh, was turning in an Oscar-winning performance on the set of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Laurence Olivier was developing one of his most memorable characterizations for a film few people would end up seeing.  For his role as a restaurateur who steals and commits bigamy for love of a kept woman (Jennifer Jones), Olivier visited New York flophouses to research the character’s fall into homelessness and got Spencer Tracy to coach his Midwestern accent.  Olivier threw himself into the work despite a leg injury and his dislike of Jones’ acting, creating a painful image of misplaced passion and its aftermath.  Paramount Pictures was so scared of the picture’s downbeat plot, they kept the film on the shelf until Wyler agreed to let them re-cut it, minus the Olivier character’s climactic suicide.  Even then, they snuck it into minor theaters, keeping Olivier’s deeply felt work from audiences until the film’s rediscovery on television and DVD.

Vincent Price as Mark Cardigan in His Kind of Woman (1951)
Vincent Price rose to the occasion when RKO owner Howard Hughes handed him the role of an egotistical, swashbuckling film star planning to dump his wife for aspiring singer Jane Russell.  Price’s comic relief was given a boost when Hughes ordered re-writes, brought in Richard Fleischer to re-shoot much (some say all) of director John Farrow’s work and demanded more scenes for Price.  As a result, the film starts as a film noir, with hard-luck gambler Robert Mitchum on a collision course with deported mobster Raymond Burr.  But when Price swoops in, he transforms it into a crackerjack send-up of the genre.  Price’s mellifluous voice, 6’4” frame and creepy demeanor were perfect attributes for a character who could say he was too well known to die and mean it.

Tyrone Power as Stanton Carlisle in Nightmare Alley (1947)
This 1947 adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s cynical novel about a phony mind reader who rises from carnival sideshow to high society, then falls again, gave Tyrone Power the toughest acting challenge of his career.  Stan Carlisle’s rise to the top – with the help of any woman he can charm into serving as a stepping-stone – may have been close to Power’s star persona: He had the wisecracks, flirtatious glances and romantic delivery down pat, even if in this film his character was clearly out for nobody but himself.  But Carlisle’s downfall took Power to new depths.  Stan’s haunted eyes, hollow voice and alcoholic desperation are almost too painful to watch, and when he begs for a job as a sideshow geek – a fake primitive who bites the heads off live chickens – Power leaves his star image far behind.  The actor had returned from World War II determined to prove he was more than just a pretty face and fought for the role after 20th Century Fox had announced another actor would play the part.  He repaid the studio’s gamble by turning in his best performance, and even critics like James Agee were surprised to find themselves giving positive reviews of his acting.  Audiences, however, didn’t want a new Tyrone Power.  When the box office reports came in, he was forced back into glamorous roles until he finally gave up films for the theater in the 1950s.  From the evidence of Nightmare Alley, that was definitely Hollywood’s loss.

John Qualen as Muley in The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
The role of the dispossessed sharecropper may not have been the largest John Qualen played as a member of the John Ford Stock Company, but it was easily the most memorable.  Appearing in the first 15 minutes of the film, Qualen’s Muley updates Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) on what was happening to the Okies during the Dust Bowl of the Great Depression.  But Qualen gave the film more than just exposition.  He etched a vivid portrait of impotent rage at the bankers who ignored his family’s connection to the land where he had been born and his people had died.  He put a human face on the plight of a nation.  Qualen entered Ford’s stock company with only his second film, Arrowsmith (1931).  Over the next three decades, he would appear in eight more Ford films.  Qualen may never have gotten an Oscar nod or won over-the-title billing, but he brought to life a string of simple working men, many of them immigrants, who helped build a nation on screen.

Donald Sutherland as Calvin Jarrett in Ordinary People (1980)
Some of the luster may have worn off this 1980 drama about a family dealing with the death of their elder son.  The film’s two biggest surprises – Robert Redford’s emergence as a gifted, sensitive director and sitcom sweetheart Mary Tyler Moore’s blistering performance as the emotionally distant mother – don’t seem as startling almost 30 years later.  Moreover, its reputation as the film that beat out Raging Bull for Best Picture has led some later critics to dismiss it.  But when Donald Sutherland, as the family’s father, takes the screen for the lengthy, climactic confrontation with his wife, it’s impossible to look away from the screen.  Better known at the time for offbeat films like M*A*S*H (1970) and Don’t Look Now (1973), Sutherland was cast against type as a button-down businessman (he was originally set for the psychiatrist’s role played by Judd Hirsch).  Everything about Sutherland, from his innate integrity to his reticent delivery to the slouch the 6’4” actor developed so he could maintain eye contact with co-stars, breathed life into the role.  During editing, Sutherland asked Redford if he could reshoot the climactic scene, because he thought he had cried too much.  The more restrained version in the film is devastating in its quietness – one of the best pieces of acting you’ll find in this or any other film.  His failure to join co-stars Moore, Hirsch and Timothy Hutton as one of the film’s Oscar nominees is considered one of the Academy’s biggest oversights.

About Turner Classic Movies (TCM)
Turner Classic Movies is a Peabody Award-winning network that presents great films, uncut and commercial-free, from the largest film libraries in the world.  Currently seen in more than 85 million homes, TCM features the insights of veteran primetime host Robert Osborne and weekend daytime host Ben Mankiewicz, plus interviews with a wide range of special guests.  As the foremost authority in classic films, TCM offers critically acclaimed original documentaries and specials, along with regular programming events that include The Essentials, 31 Days of Oscar and Summer Under the Stars.  TCM also stages special events and screenings, such as the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood; produces a wide range of media about classic film, including books and DVDs; and hosts a wealth of materials at its Web site, www.tcm.com.  TCM is part of Turner Broadcasting System, Inc., a Time Warner company.

Turner Broadcasting System, Inc., a Time Warner company, creates and programs branded news, entertainment, animation and young adult media environments on television and other platforms for consumers around the world.

 
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