June Allyson was one of the most popular stars in her day, a husky-voiced, adorable girl next door as famous for her magnificent crying scenes as she was for a sunny, infectious smile. She had a scrappy quality that lent her bubbly onscreen persona an edge of rebelliousness and determined ambition. Very pretty, but not stunningly beautiful, small in stature, Allyson could play much younger than she was, but she especially excelled in roles that called for a hard edge around her essential sweetness. Here are her four finest performances:
4. Connie Lane in Good News (1947)
Good News is widely regarded as the best of the so-called 'college musicals,' and it's a showcase for the qualities that made Allyson so popular. She plays Connie Lane, a librarian and French tutor hired by football star Tommy (Peter Lawford), who hopes learning the langue de l'amour will get him in chilly new girl, Pat's (Patricia Marshall) good graces. The dance numbers are wildly dated - a number called "Pass the Peace Pipe" is particularly spectacular - but robustly athletic and infectiously cheery. Allyson's lack of pretension serves her in good stead as a young woman who's had to earn her own way and only gradually, as he matures, comes to see Tommy as a potential boyfriend. Allyson and Lawford were repeatedly paired and their relationship's growth comes across as sweet and wholesome, a partnership of two people who respect each other, rather than the power coupling that Tommy originally pursues.
3. Dr. Emily Barringer in The Girl in White (1952)
In my review of this film, I praised it for its "emotionally calibrated dissection of the barriers women doctors faced" in the 19th century, and indeed, although The Girl in White is decidedly short on the sorts of anthem-creating, triumphal moments contemporary feminism tends to glorify, it offers a surprisingly nuanced and sympathetic depiction of what it meant for women to enter the medical profession. Allyson's performance as a young woman determined to become a doctor, come hell, high water, or haughty men doctors, is spunky, steely, but also soft and romantic. Instead of imitating the male doctors, Allyson's Dr. Barringer takes a different, yes, feminine approach - and in the process shows her colleagues a thing or two. The strongest scenes in the picture feature Allyson sparring not with the obnoxious doctors who won't give her the time of day, but with the one (Arthur Kennedy) who encourages her to pursue medicine until he decides to propose.
2. Leslie Odell in Her Highness and the Bellboy (1945)
Allyson is especially heartbreaking in a role that, played by the average Hollywood ingenue, could have proved disastrously maudlin, but not with her, not least of all because Allyson knew something about this character's misery: Leslie has lost her ability to walk after an accident, while Allyson nearly suffered the same fate after being crushed by a branch when she was a child. Leslie, confined to her room, takes comfort in the sweet attentions of Jimmy (Robert Walker), but realizes she may very well lose him when he becomes infatuated with a princess (Hedy Lamarr) staying at the hotel where he works. This romantically melancholic film is more occupied with dreams and fantasies of love than with letting the characters fulfill those dreams. Thus, despite its decadent romantic aesthetic, Her Highness and the Bellboy is less a fairy tale than an interrupted dream of a film.
1. Jo March in Little Women (1949)
Although Allyson was most often cast as the lovely girl that the guy has to learn to love, in contrast to a flashier, more glamorous rival, this type-casting often resulted in her characters ending up in relationships that were more accepting of personality differences and that left room for them to pursue professional goals. Allyson is my favorite Jo March, in part because her performance is so staunchly unsentimental and so grounded in the character's development as a writer. In this version, her refusal of Laurie (Peter Lawford, again, looking decades too old for the part) rings true because her Jo is so constantly, insistently unromantic and for once, one believes her when she says she prefers romance to "be confined to the page." The common line on this version is that it's the most romanticized and politically regressive, but as Jo, Allyson is far less affected and theatrical than Katharine Hepburn and not at all tremulously dreamy like Winona Ryder.
Though she doesn't have a cultish following like Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor or Marilyn Monroe, and she doesn't have a die-hard, devoted fanbase like Esther Williams (though why, I will never understand) or Carole Lombard, and none of her films tend to be regarded as masterpieces, June Allyson deserves to be better remembered and recognized. She exuded rays of sunshine from every pore, that is, when a storm of tears wasn't clouding her over, and we could all use more sunshine these days.
Wednesday, August 8, 2018
This morning news broke that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would be introducing a new awards category "around achievement in popular film." While Slate's commentator, Marissa Martinelli, objected principally because such a new category marginalized the films it ostensibly is meant to include, the idea is wrong-headed for numerous reasons, most of them founded on fundamentally silly notions of what the Oscars mean.
Any film critic is going to assume that the Academy is going to get it wrong, for a plenitude of reasons. For one, many of the films later recognized as masterpieces in any given year aren't even eligible for the Oscars. In the case of foreign releases, they need to have distribution in the United States, if they're not submitted by the country in which they were produced for the Best Foreign Film category, but in all cases, failure to get the right distribution at the right time can mean not qualifying for the Oscars.
For another, the Oscars don't, and have never, actually recognized the 'best' in film. Awards are given as a statement of politics (Crash, being the most obvious one), or because a highly achieving individual hasn't managed to snag one yet and is getting elderly (Cecil B. DeMille, for the bloated and ironically titled The Greatest Show on Earth). The assessment isn't based on stated criteria, so the taste of the (notoriously old, white, male) Academy voters largely determines what wins, and those voters tend to be conservative and keen on protecting the industry. It's common knowledge that many voters don't even watch the films, voting based on their impressions of what is 'important' or 'significant' at the time. As such, the fury that accompanies every 'unjustified' loss becomes absurd: there is no objective evaluative method to determine the best film, performance, screenplay, etc.
Thus, the Oscars are not, and have never been, a good measure of the best films and contributions to films. The choices of nominees are heavily weighted towards American and British films, produced and distributed by major studios who have the clout and financial resources to woo voters, and advertised and released widely. Let's take a look at an example, the Best Picture nominees of 2004: The Aviator, Finding Neverland, Ray, Sideways, and the winner, Million Dollar Baby. They were all distributed by major distributors like Warner Brothers, Miramax, and Universal, and even the indie, Sideways, got distribution through Fox Searchlight, which is about as mainstream an indie distributor as you can get. They have big name directors - Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese - and big name stars - Hillary Swank, Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jamie Foxx. They're the sort of projects that have historically appealed to Academy voters: three are based on true stories, four are redemptive stories of people who make huge sacrifices for success, and even the outlier, that indie, is as tightly structured a narrative as any MFA workshop instructor could ask for.
The notion that Academy voters ignore box office (and thus popularity) is absurd. Every one of those 2004 nominees made well over 100 million at the box office and two made well over 200 million. Those are not small box office returns. It's true that mega-blockbusters rarely get nominations in the so-called 'major' categories, though they more often than not sweep through the technical awards, for achievements in sound mixing and editing, special effects, make-up, and so on. However, mega-blockbusters are also designed to appeal to teenage boys and young men - the Academy voters are old men, not at all the audience those superhero movies and special effects extravaganzas are meant to appeal to. Even if a blockbuster is a fantastic film, by design, it will seldom have much attraction to Academy voters, who already fail to watch all nominees, let alone most of those films eligible for nomination.
The problem boils down to a series of false assumptions: first, that the Oscars are supposed to reflect objective excellence in global cinema; second, that the Oscar nominations are based on unfair criteria (they are based on no meaningful criteria); third, that the Oscars ought to reflect a majority opinion; fourth, that the majority opinion can be based off of box office returns. Popularity is not the same as excellence, though the two can coincide. But even if the Academy had nominated, say, Mike Leigh's quiet chamber drama Vera Drake, or the introspective German release, The Edukators, for Best Picture in 2004, the idea that failing to choose popular films is somehow prejudicial remains a fallacy. Awards in excellence are not democratically granted because the film industry is not a democracy. The new category promises to be a flat-footed, decidedly unwelcome, and essentially stupid category not because it continues to marginalize the most popular films (which is quite a whingdinger of an idea in the first place, since marginalization and popularity are antithetical by nature), but because all it accomplishes is the distribution of more awards to more films that, whether they are excellent or not, have earned a lot of money. It is purely redundant and a signal that the Academy Awards are nothing more than an exercise in industry self-congratulation.
Then again, why the hell should any of us give a damn about the Oscars? For the record, my nominees for 2004 would be A Very Long Engagement, which I would make the winner, Head-On, Downfall, Vera Drake, and Howl's Moving Castle, five films that together received seven Oscar nominations, with no wins.