October 19, 2014

Martha Scott, Our Town

as EMILY WEBB
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If movies are influenced by the time in which they are made, then I'd say that Our Town is a perfect example of the Production Code era. Because in what other time period could a somewhat strange and somewhat drab stage play about the lives of citizens in a tiny New Hampshire town in 1901 possibly have been a success at the box office? If Inside Oscar is to be believed, the race for Best Picture that year was actually between Rebecca, The Grapes of Wrath, and Our Town...further reinforcing the notion that good-clean fun was especially valued during that time. I point this out because I feel that Martha Scott's bid for the Best Actress statue that year is one of those instances where an actress got the nomination not necessarily because she was excellent, but because the film had done well and was held to a high enough regard that her name was pushed into the race. Scott's is not the kind of performance that has enough weight to hold its own in sheer merit; in fact, it's very much the kind of performance that slips through the cracks.

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Even though she was nearing 30 years old at the time, Scott is actually pretty convincing as a girl in her mid-teens. She embodies the shy, inhibited nature of a girl from the early 19th century just as I would imagine one to be in my head. Emily Webb is a sleeper of a performancein that she does just about nothing in the first act and gradually gains more and more screentime and importance throughout the duration of the film. In the beginning it's quite cute, and her exchanges with George as well as her mother are endearing as they are because of how well Scott shows innocence and naiveté. But just as well, for roughly two-thirds of the film Scott has only one dimension to hertimid teen girland while she makes a fine timid teen girl, it leaves you much to be desired. By the second act, I'm sitting there watching Scott sip her ice cream soda and converse with William Holden in the same breathy, stupefied inflection, eyes wide like a sweet doe to everything he says, with the occasional nervous turn of her face, as if to reassure us that she is in fact quite shy and nervous, and I'm just bored by her. If it wasn't for that last act, in which Scott is finally allowed to sink her teeth into something, and in which Emily finally gets a chance to be interesting, then the performance would be pretty pointless. My guess is that that last act is what secured her a nominationwhat with all that deep philosophizing about life and suchbut it was just...alright to me. Perhaps it was the awkward tech work that makes Scott's face hard to see, or perhaps it was the acting itself which felt more stagey that I'd have liked (Scott did originate the role of Emily on stage after all)...her wounded delicateness is certainly touching and profound, but ultimately I felt as though I was more moved by the material of that scene than by Scott's actual acting. Sure, it's the most important moment of the play, but I think there's something to be said about an actress really taking control of her material as opposed to allowing the material to carry her. Scott certainly does what she's required to do competently, and it's a dedicated enough effort that I can't find much fault in it. But she and the film are just satisfactory, and sometimes satisfactory doesn't really cut it.

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