By Lara Gabrielle Fowler
On a whim yesterday, I removed my trusty VHS of Sunset Boulevard from its spot in my movie library (organized alphabetically, by year) and put it in for an impromptu viewing. Sunset Boulevard is one of those movies with everything–flawless plot, perfect script, skillful directing, and tour-de-force acting by Gloria Swanson, whose portrayal of fictional fallen screen star Norma Desmond, whose life has unraveled to the point of insanity, is one for the ages. As a friend of mine puts it, “Gloria Swanson tore her heart out and bled that role.”
Rightly, she was remembered in the Best Actress Oscar nominations for 1950, along with Bette Davis (All About Eve), Judy Holliday (Born Yesterday), Anne Baxter (All About Eve), and Eleanor Parker (Caged).
All About Eve is similar to Sunset Boulevard in many ways. Both were directed by writer-directors (Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s script for All About Eve is a phenomenal triumph, and Billy Wilder’s script with Charles Brackett for Sunset Boulevard is famous for being the pair’s last collaboration) and both deal brutally with the issues of stardom as one ages. The main characters are stubborn and vulnerable larger-than-life personalities. We are led to realize the unfairness in life that has been dealt to them–where Norma Desmond’s fragile mental state leads those close to her (namely her strangely devoted butler Max) to treat her with kid gloves, no one takes Margo’s guff and it is assumed that she can take care of herself–when in reality she is in desperate need of protection.
Hollywood loved its own. It was going to be either Bette Davis or Gloria Swanson, no one else had much of a chance.
But when the announcement was read, there was an upset.
So what happened?
I think the nomination of two actresses portraying similarly themed characters, both giving the performance of their respective careers, was too much for that year. The votes were split down the for Davis and Swanson, relegating each of them to the minority allowing Judy Holliday to win with the “outlier” votes. Essentially, 1950 was so good, it backfired.
Now don’t get me wrong, I think Judy Holliday was brilliant in Born Yesterday. It remains one of my favorite movies of 1950, and Judy Holliday was what made it. Check out this wonderful scene of her playing cards, and the subtle expressions and physical movements that drive the scene. I apologize for the poor quality, but it’s very much worth watching.
Had this been any other year, I would have applauded Holliday’s win, but it was an inappropriate result for a category that included Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard and Bette Davis in All About Eve.
I would like to pose the question to you, readers–what are your opinions on the 23rd Academy Awards? Who do you think should have won? What do you think happened? Leave a comment in the comments section and let’s discuss it!
I look forward to reading your comments!
I totally agree with you. Holliday was brilliant but also played this role on stage so had a head start – if my memory serves me correctly. My vote would have gone to Swanson. I do believe that it was the top 3 acting performances in a single year with Honorable Mention going to 2007 with Marion Cotillard, Cate Blanchett and Julie Christie.
Just got the following from Amazon – can’t wait to read them:
The Art of Alfred Hitchcock: Fifty Years of His Motion Pictures
The Golden Age of Cinema: Hollywood, 1929-1945
Maybe it was too close of a call between Miss Swanson and Miss Davis. The people in charge of voting couldn’t decide who was better in their highly-riveting roles, so they decided to throw a curve ball and throw Judy Holliday in so they wouldn’t have to worry about a feud, angry fans, or something, should either one of them win.
If I had been, in 1950, younger than I am now, I think I’d probably have voted for Bette Davis. If I’d been the age I am now, I’d have gone with Gloria Swanson. I don’t know why, but there it is. (Maybe because Bette already had two…) Either way, I’d have had no problem whatsoever with Judy Holliday winning, and I have no problem with it now. As Cole Porter said when his song “True Love” lost to “Que Sera Sera”: “Well, whatever will be will be.”
Personally, I don’t think it was the double-barreled nominations of Davis and Swanson that split the vote — it was nominating Anne Baxter in the same category. We’ve got Darryl Zanuck to thank for that. A three-way race like that almost always goes to a dark horse. (I could cite examples, but I’ve run on long enough.)
I think you got it right – it was a sword of Solomon decision – and looking back A LOT of the Academy’s picks were dubious. Ginger Rogers… “Kitty Foyle… I can say no more. The membership, at the time (they’re trying to diversify it now) consisted mostly of actors.
This is true. If I were to pick a winner from 1940, it probably would have been Joan Fontaine in “Rebecca” instead of Ginger in “Kitty Foyle” (though that one scene where she *SPOILER ALERT* loses her baby is brilliant). Like I said, I don’t have a problem with Judy Holliday’s performance at all–only that she won over Swanson and Davis.
Right, like I said I would have no problem with Judy Holliday winning if it had been another year. Interesting point about Anne Baxter throwing everyone a curveball there. I always thought she should have been in the Best Supporting Actress category anyway–and she might have won over Josephine Hull in “Harvey.” That might have been the Academy’s big mistake.
Could have been. Lots of underhanded stuff went on for sure.
Awesome! I’m waiting on word from the San Francisco Silent Film Festival about whether or not I get media credentials to cover the silent Hitchcock festival in mid-June. Fingers crossed!
Yes, Judy Holliday played the role on stage. Truthfully, my vote would have gone to Swanson as well. I love Bette Davis with all my heart, and “All About Eve” is one of my favorite movies of all time (I like it even better than “Sunset Boulevard”) but Gloria Swanson LIVED Norma Desmond. In my opinion, that Oscar was hers.
If forced to choose, and I’m glad I wasn’t in that position where I had to, I would have picked Gloria Swanson for all the reasons you mentioned. I believe that more often than not, all of the nominated actors and actresses in a given year are deserving of the award, and reaching a decision of who deserves it more seems a nearly impossible task in itself. I understand each voter’s personal taste is inevitably a major factor, but when Academy politics and marketing campaigns complicate the picture, it’s a small wonder we aren’t questioning wins through the years to an even greater extent. But as long as voting is inherently subjective (as if it could be otherwise), these debates will always be had. Perhaps in 63 years, somebody will be arguing the merits of Jennifer Lawrence’s award.
I am a huge Bette Davis fan, but I would have gone with Gloria Swanson on this one. She is utterly mesmerizing as Nora Desmond.
Sorry to say I’m a sucker for a happy ending and I love Judy. I’m glad she won, thought she deserved it and think there should have been 3 winners.. Of course, to be nominated is a big win. Being first is being another kind of winner. Here we see how subjective that is.
I love Judy too. I think she was great in “Born Yesterday,” but in a category with Gloria and Bette? I wish Judy had given that performance in another year–or probably more accurately, I wish “Sunset Boulevard” and “All About Eve” had been made in separate years. If Gloria Swanson had won, it would also have been her first Oscar. She had been nominated previously, but didn’t win.
I have to say that my vote goes to Backlots for (a) this wonderful post and (b) for organizing her VHS tapes alphabetically, by year. IMPRESSIVE!!!
Haha! Thanks for the nice words. Organizing my movies alphabetically by year allows me to find what I want much easier–though when I tell people that I organize my movies this way, they often look at me like I’m insane.
I think Gloria Swanson lost votes from members of the academy who did not like movies showing the less glamorous side of being a Hollywood star…
‘Essentially, 1950 was so good, it backfired.’ That pretty much sums it up. Excellent article.
In a just world, Judy Holliday would have had double nominations that year, best actress for Born Yesterday and supporting for Adam’s Rib (which got only one nomination, for its screenplay). She would have won supporting, and the lead actress would have gone to Davis or Swanson. My choice is Davis. It’s a flamboyant performance, like Swanson’s, but there’s also a fair amount of nuance and subtlety to it. I’ve always felt Sunset Boulevard was William Holden’s movie. The story is totally from his point of view and Norma Desmond is kept at something of a distance throughout the whole movie.
Eleanor Parker easily would have won my vote. Her part required enormous emotional intensity and she had to evolve in the course of the film.
What an interesting topic. I was just wondering the same thing myself. How on earth did Davis AND Swanson both lose??
I can’t honestly say. Maybe Holliday had a Weinstein of the day behind her, giving her that extra shark’s tooth edge. One would think that Davis would certainly have that too. I think Baxter did help to split the vote just enough.
Had I been voting then, I would have gone with Davis. Margo Channing was probably the highlight of Bette’s career, and what a career she had–so many memorable roles–so that’s saying a lot.
Let’s be honest here. Swanson was fantastic in SB, but the performance is one of the campiest of all time. I’m not saying that that’s necessarily a bad thing, but it could have been enough to lose it for her. I’m sure some voters felt that she went waaaay too over the top. The role called for it, of course, but still.
Just my take on things.
I was wondering why Judy Holliday was unable to attend the Oscar ceremony that year? Would have been great to see her picking up her Oscar, especially since the presenter was her co-star Broderick Crawford. Would have been nice to see them together on stage at such a happy moment.
I have always been enamored, totally in love with women from then cuz’ their acting is captivating, all encompassing and black and white affects me in a way no colored movie ever has or will.
Gloria Swanson, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Maria Loyola, Scarlett O’Hara and the list goes on and on…Hahaha, sorry for getting caught up but not as no one knows who I am… Lol
I haven’t even gotten to the men.. Awesome
Thank you from,
I think you wanted the conventional choices because that’s what was expected by the Hollywood community. But the others were, in a way , paying the dramatic roles the always played In one way or another. I know I would rather watch Judy Holiday in her role than the other two in their over dramatic roles. Her film stands the test of time better. She deserved the Oscar
I wrote this post a long time ago, and since then my views have shifted to agree with yours. I think Judy Holliday deserved the Oscar and then some.
Judy Holliday had me at “WHAAAT”
The Academy doesn’t always get it right. I can list many examples. I have always wondered though, who did William Holden vote for? His co-star Judy Holliday or his co-star Gloria Swanson.
Gloria Swanson , by far