Performance of the week: Nancy Kelly in The Bad Seed (1956)

Nancy Kelly received her only Oscar nomination for playing Christine Penmark, the mother of a murderous child in The Bad Seed. She previously played the part on stage and even won the Tony Award for her performance there. Also reprising their stage roles are Eileen Heckart and Patty McCormack, both Oscar nominated for their respective performances as Hortense, the mother of the murdered child, and Rhoda Penmark, the little murderer.

The Bad Seed is…okay. I don’t love it, but I don’t hate it either. It’s very watchable and entertaining, but at the end of the day I don’t have any strong feelings for it. I guess in 1956 it must have been considered “shocking” but by today’s standards it is very mild and dated. The whole film seems to have retained its stage roots, with a good 90% of the entire movie taking place inside the house and the characters entering and leaving for each scene. That wasn’t a big problem for me though. I just wished that it delved deeper into the whole “nature vs nurture” debate instead of touching on it so superficially (“She’s a bad seed. Done”). Also, while the pigtail (her hair is like that for 24/7 it seems. Even when she’s sleeping) killer must have been the source of everybody’s nightmares back then, I find her a little bit hard to take seriously now, and the same can be said for McCormack’s performance (even though I’m aware of the fact that it has its fans). I get that her character is supposed to be this psychotic, fake good girl who is a bit too intent on killing people, and she played it as she’s supposed to, but the writing of the character just isn’t very believable at times and all that screeching came off as a bit plastic instead of frightening to me. (“YOU BETTER BRING BACK THE SHOES BACK TO ME LEROOOOOOY! RIGHT HERE TO MEEEEH” “SO I KEPT ON HITTING HIM WITH THE SHOES MO-THEEEEEER”) I guess that was the point of it; she was supposed to be smarter than other kids but not mature enough to cover up her tracks, which is why her curtseys and “acting cute” is very fake. I’m just torn up about what to feel about her work, which affected my opinion of the movie as a whole. I guess the film explains it by letting her mother see through her act, which sort of justifies the “fake-ness” of it. 

Having said all that, I thought Eileen Heckart was fantastic as the mother of the dead child – with merely 2 scenes, she gave us all an acting class on how to play a drunk without being hammy and ridiculous. Her over-the-top acting matched the inner pain of the character very well, and she might even have deserved to win the Oscar (haven’t watched Dorothy Malone though).

So what about Nancy Kelly? From what I‘ve read on the internet, her performance here seems to be frequently lambasted as the worst performance to be nominated for the best actress Oscar. That being said, from what I’ve read and watched (Ingrid Bergman, Deborah Kerr), it seems like 1956 isn’t the greatest year for this category either and everybody seems to have their own favourites for the win. For the case of Nancy Kelly, the criticisms thrown at her are generally about her extreme overacting in some scenes, and in this case, I would have to agree. I get that her character is on the verge of a breakdown and is hysterical, but no matter how hard I try to use this to justify her acting choices, it still feels overdone. This is especially so with the scene where she was confronting her father about her past. Maybe I’m being over particular, but the way she “recalls” her dreams felt way too abrupt and random (“DENKER!?”) and all that screeching afterwards was a bit funny (“IS SHE FATHER IS SHE!?”).

So why did I choose to write about a commonly criticised performance? I don’t know, it could be the rebellious side in me that tends to favour criticised works, but I felt like the performance actually grew on me by quite a bit! Firstly, Kelly played the role on stage and while this may not necessarily justify anything, I always felt that she understood this character inside out and was not resorting to histrionics purely for the sake of it. People have often criticised Kelly’s role as the one being in the background while the supporting characters steal the show. That may be partially true, since Eileen Heckart steals the 2 scenes that she was in, but I’ve always felt that Kelly’s character was the emotional core of this twisted film. I also thought her ending phone call with her husband was very well-handled and she injected a right amount of sadness and regret into it.

Another aspect that I liked is how she handles the character’s gradual realisation of the truth about her own daughter. Individually, her hysterical scenes are way too much, but I did feel that there was a kind of gradual arc that may be easy to overlook. From the beginning to the end, I found myself believing that Christine was slowly becoming more and more disturbed of her daughter’s actions, and in this sense, I found the build-up towards her hysterical behaviour somewhat justified, even if Kelly’s delivery is clumsy. I also liked her famous breakdown scene with the “STOP THAT MUSIC!” screech – I found myself believing the character’s devastation at that point.

So all in all, I actually kinda liked Nancy Kelly’s performance here, even though I’m not supposed to! Despite the flaws, there was something about it that drew me to her work here; it could be the honesty underneath the extreme overacting, or the fact that I’m usually drawn to such highly emotional characters. Interesting work, that may not necessarily be perfect, but has something in it that I admire. 

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