Tuesday, July 28, 2015

1952: Shirley Booth for Come Back, Little Sheba

Booth plays Lola, a frumpy, childless housewife married to a recovering alcoholic. Her relatively boring life suddenly becomes much more exciting when a beautiful young college student moves in with them.

I did not have high expectations for this movie, for several reasons. First, I'd never heard of it before, and I feel like by now I've at least heard of most great films, especially from this era. Second, it has a really cheesy title. Third, it was from 1952, the year the Academy picked a stupid circus movie for Best Picture (no, I'm still not over it). Fourth, I didn't really know who Shirley Booth was. So I was certainly not expecting this to be one of the best performances I've seen so far, but I'm pretty sure that it was.

This was Booth's film debut, but she had won a Tony two years earlier for playing this role on the stage. I can certainly see why; she embodies this character so perfectly, I can't imagine anyone else playing her. Within the first couple of minutes of the film, I felt like I knew her. While I found out more about her as the story progressed, everything I learned was consistent with how she acted from the beginning. This character has such a pathetic life, but she tries, rather unsuccessfully, to pretend she doesn't. Booth does a tremendous job of keeping all of Lola's pain and fears and regrets just barely below the surface. It would have been a completely different story if her lines had just been read the way they appeared on paper. Lola could have just seemed annoying for prattling on all the time, but you can tell she's only doing it as a cover to convince herself that everything is all right, and it's heartbreaking.

It's worth mentioning that all the other performances in this film are very good, too. Terry Moore was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her charming portrayal of the young college student. I was also impressed by Burt Lancaster's performance as the alcoholic husband. He gets some criticism for being way too young for the part - it's implied that he and Lola are about the same age, when Lancaster was in fact 15 years younger than Booth - but I think that actually works. It helps explain some of the characters' frustrations that she appears to have aged much faster than he has. Even Richard Jaeckel's complete jerk of a character was very well-played. But Booth unquestionably steals the film. Rarely have I been so moved by a performance as I was by this one. I believed in her sadness so completely that I desperately wanted to give her a hug and be her friend; anything to make her truly happy for just a minute. Apparently Booth's first husband was an alcoholic womanizer, and her second, much nicer husband had recently died suddenly, so she certainly had plenty of pain from her actual life to draw from. Perhaps that's why her performance is so convincing. Or maybe she was just an extraordinarily talented actress. Regardless, you should definitely check out this movie if you haven't seen it. While it does come across as more of a play than a movie, it's an incredibly well-performed play that's unquestionably worth watching.

Shirley Booth was only ever in a few movies, which probably explains why I didn't know who she was. She did most of her acting on the stage or television. Now she's most well-known for playing the title role in the 1960s sitcom "Hazel," which is something else I'd never heard of before. Anyway, this was her only Oscar nomination, but she also won two Emmys and three Tonys, which I would call a pretty impressive resume. Also she lived to be 94 years old, which is also pretty impressive. But nothing's more impressive than her performance in Come Back, Little Sheba. Seriously, I cannot stress enough how blown away I was.

Next up: Audrey Hepburn

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