March 12, 2017

Eleanor Parker • Caged

as Marie Allen
Eleanor Parker, Caged
Won: Volpi Cup for Best Actress

Within the time-honored tale of 1950's Best Actress race, an assertion presents itself: all of those nominated for leading actress had the goods to win the prize, including Eleanor Parker's work in Caged, whose excellence has been largely overshadowed by the drama surrounding the Gloria Swanson-Bette Davis-Judy Holliday triumvirate.

One of the earliest images you see in Caged is that of Parker, bearing a palpable sense of horror across her face just before she's led into prison. It's a brief, searing visual which sets the tone for much of Parker's performance - one that's deeply earnest and absorbent.

Eleanor Parker, Caged

Whereas the work of fellow nominee Gloria Swanson is of a much more exaggerated and histrionic variety, Parker's work is lifelike and lived-in in comparison. Billed as "The Story of a Women's Prison Today!," much of Caged's purpose is to sling a slew of dramatic (perhaps overstated?) scenarios back-to-back-to-back against our doe-eyed protagonist, in the name of revealing a real glimpse into a subset of the prison system. What made me so fond of Parker was how she communicates Marie's naiveté for the audience. She's sweet, innocent, likable. She seems like another nice girl you remember from high school. You listen to her talk and you don't understand (just as she doesn't either) why the hell she's in prison. And that's the crux to what makes the performance great.

There's a whirlwind of acting Olympics involved for the person tasked to play Marie, and yet what makes Parker so interesting is her infantile nature. It comes through so naturally that you're prompted to feel a considerable amount of compassion for Marie. Watch her as she's getting registered in prison - Parker looks as though she's going to fall apart. Her fragility resonates deeply and feels refreshingly natural.

This naturalness is the driver of Parker's performance as she navigates through the film's various melodramatic and campy obstacles (The baby whose grandma refuses to take home! The kitten that triggers a prison riot! The compelling yet unreasonably messy exit interview meltdown!)
Eleanor Parker, Caged
Eleanor Parker, Caged
One of the main taglines Caged presents in its advertising is the question of whether Marie will "come out a woman or a wildcat?" If the film is insinuating that to be a "woman" means one is to be refined, doe-eyed, and resilient, then Parker's got all those qualities down pat. That said, the film executes Marie's transformation into said "wildcat" a little abruptly, stymieing the flow of the performance. I'd have appreciated a more fully realized segue between the two Maries, but in any case, the contrast in Parker's acting is dynamic. By film's close, she emerges a different character - colder, jaded, bearing a deeper register singed with resent. The wildcat Marie isn't given as much screen time as ingenue Marie, and that's unfortunate: as she walks out of the prison and situates herself into a car with shifty characters, you're left agog as to what lies ahead for her. Until the very end, Parker keeps Marie highly watchable and fascinating.

So while Caged isn't anywhere near as iconic as the likes of All About Eve and Sunset Blvd., and while the conversations around Eleanor Parker's work are much more hushed than that around Bette/Judy/Gloria, I'm of the belief that Parker has the goods to be in strong contention for the win in plenty of other years (case in point: Parker managed to extract a Volpi Cup from the Venice Film Festival, over the likes of Ingrid Bergman in Stromboli). It's a terribly juicy part, acted with total commitment and swagger.



12 comments:

  1. This was the last of the five 1950 performances I saw and I think it's the most realized and affecting work of all of them. The film itself is of the 'debs-behind-bars' variety, but I think Parker's commitment to Marie's plight and her naturalness in the role elevate this to something more. She's utterly believable from start to finish. I'd even go so far as to say that she is unforgettable here and deserved the recognition she received for her fine work. That she's not talked about more in retrospect due to the prominence of other 1950 nominees is unfortunate because she is easily their equal. She is also my personal favorite in this category. A compelling performance.

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    1. Totally agreed. Sounds like she's your win? If so, that's interesting - don't believe I've seen anyone out there cite Parker as their personal favorite out of this bunch.

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    2. I have a feeling some of my other 1950 assessments will also be rather non-traditional, so to speak; i.e., this is definitely not one of my favorite groups of performances for Best Actress. Not by a long shot.

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  2. Glad you liked her. What did you think of Emerson and Moorehead?

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    1. Emerson....perhaps a little overrated? Thought she was a little kitschy and didn't really come across as genuinely terrifying or intimidating or impactful.

      Moorehead - good enough I suppose. She's always a lovely presence to be had.

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    2. Emerson's role, unfortunately, is one of those 'over-the-top' parts the Academy loved and she plays it to the hilt, which is no compliment. Moorehead, for once, is nicely restrained and left me wanting to see more of her.

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  3. I probably wouldn't go for a 5 but I agree that she is fantastic and doesn't deserve to be the "forgotten" nominee in that line-up. Can't wait for your thoughts on Judy and the Eve-gals.

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    1. They're coming soon! I've been straggling along, I really need to pick this back to my usual pace again.

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  4. It's good stuff, I LIKED her.

    But she would've never won because of the film's genre. :) Probably 5th.

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    1. Agreed, but Parker may have been 4th as well. I have a hunch Anne might've been 5th.

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  5. Well, you've sold me. I'll to find this. If I ever saw it, I was too young a kid to remember.

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    1. Check it out when you have the chance! I didn't think I'd like a women-in-prison film, but it turned out to be highly watchable.

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