Month: November 2014

Norma Shearer in The Divorcee (1930)

Norma Shearer1

Norma Shearer2

Norma Shearer3

Norma Shearer won her only Oscar for playing Jerry Martin in The Divorcee.

The Divorcee is an okay pre-code movie. I’m not crazy about it at all, and despite it being controversial back in its day, it is very mild by today’s standards (“I’d like to make love to you till you scream for help”). The idea of a sexually liberated divorcee and her promiscuity must have been shocking to audiences back then, but that wasn’t my biggest issue with the movie. It had that very common problem in many 30s’ movies, where the scenes transition a little too quickly and abruptly from one to another and the story was on the thin side. Still, I liked that the director made an effort to actually capture the actors’ expressions through some cut scenes, and that made it a lot more effective rather than making the whole film like a staged play. I liked some of the ideas it explored, such as the double standards imposed between men and women when it comes to sexuality and marriage. Talkies were still early back then, so I guess they were still figuring it out.

Still, the light of the film itself is really its leading actress Norma Shearer. Shearer was pretty much the queen of the Oscars (and MGM) in the thirties, receiving a total of 6 Oscar nominations in that decade before her last film in 1942. She was known for her “free soul” image and pre-code films. I have often read people describing her as a fascinating presence on screen, and to certain extent I would agree. The flirtatious smile, the charm, the seductiveness and sexiness all emanates from her naturally without coming across as forced and contrived, but at the same time there is this mystery behind it that makes this lady so compelling to watch.

As such, Shearer actually fits the role of Jerry like a glove. Right from the beginning, she is the light of the otherwise not-so-interesting movie. Some people may argue that the giggling and the mannerisms are fake, but to me it was just an integral part of Jerry’s personality. Things change, however, when Jerry learns of her d-bag husband’s affair. Shearer plays the initial hurt and disebelief of Jerry fairly well, although I must admit I wished she went deeper into the emotions at times. I personally felt that her line deliveries sounded a bit fake at times although it wasn’t extremely distracting or terrible. The scene where she tosses the glass in her hand to one side in front of her husband’s mistress was brilliant though – that brief shot on her face captured the anger, the vindictiveness and bitchiness.

The highlight of her performance comes from the transformed, sexually liberated Jerry. The scene where she begged for her husband’s forgiveness after having an affair herself was very good; she covers a wide range of emotions, from the way she decided to humiliate herself, to her heartbreak and realisation that her husband’s a real dick (“I thought your heart was breaking like mine. But instead you tell me your man’s pride can’t stand the gaffe.”) and her declaration that “I’m glad there’s more than one man in the world while I’m young and they want me.” Yet despite her subsequent affairs with numerous men, Shearer still shows Jerry’s pain and regret over the failure of her marriage.

I like the performance more than I really respect it. From what I gather, this doesn’t seem to be considered Shearer’s best performance despite her Oscar win, but I think it is a solid performance with more emotional depth than one would imagine. A bit over the top and annoying at times (especially her voice), but it’s a good performance by an actress I want to see more of (borrowed Marie Antoinette today!)


Ernest Borgnine in Marty (1955)

Ernest Borgnine won his only Oscar for playing Marty Piletti.

Marty has the distinction of being the shortest best picture winner, but the film is also one of the most beautiful of its category. The film is honest and rarely comes off as trying hard to be “deep”, and yet it covers a wide-range of themes despite its simplicity: the different cultures and values of the Italians, the idea of unconditional love, the prejudice against people of a lower socio-economic class. I know some people criticise the sub-plot involving Marty’s cousin and his mother as the problem wasn’t really “resolved”, and yet it reflects a reality faced by many families, even today.  The film is a fantastic, heartbreaking and thought-provoking one that I highly recommend. Betsy Blair was also truly great and she might even have deserved that Oscar over Jo Van Fleet.

A large part of why Marty works is because of Ernest Borgnine’s performance as the titular character. Marty is a fairly simple character; he is full of heart and kindness, which Borgnine portrays beautifully, but at the same time there is always an internal pain and sadness that you can see from his eyes and body language. Right from the beginning, we can see Marty constantly being nagged at for still being single. While he appears nonchalant, it is clear how hurt he is by the constant badgering, and how his insecurities always seep through when his mother tells him to get married.

Things change when Marty meets Clara (Betsy Blair), a plain schoolteacher who got abandoned by her blind date. Borgnine portrays Marty’s kindness with so much honesty and heart that one can’t help but smile during the entire sequence they were walking and chatting together.  His excitement, his earnestness and his non-stop rambling are all excellently portrayed by Borgnine, and his chemistry with Blair is also very realistic and moving. I was rooting for them, and despite the brevity of their meeting, it is instantly believable that they are a match made for each other. There was also a particular moment in the film where Marty confessed to Clara that he once had suicidal thoughts after he left the army; it was such a dark and heartbreaking moment, and yet you always feel that Clara is such a warm presence needed to balance out the darkness in Marty’s life.

Borgnine handles Marty’s transformation so naturally and believably, it somewhat reminds me of Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, one of my favourite film performances of all time. Yes, they are different characters, but both actors handle their roles with so much naturalism and truthfulness in their acting that you don’t realise how much their characters have changed by the end of the film (unlike some actors who deliberately highlight the character’s change in their acting to the audience). Marty becomes a more romantic person who becomes more true to himself and his desires, and realises that he has to live for himself, rather than for his mother and his friends. Borgnine portrays the internal conflict of the character so brilliantly that you get this instant satisfaction when he finally decides to continue pursuing his relationship with Clara at the end of the film.

“You don’t like her, my mother don’t like her, she’s a dog and I’m a fat, ugly man! Well, all I know is I had a good time last night! I’m gonna have a good time tonight! If we have enough good times together, I’m gonna get down on my knees and I’m gonna beg that girl to marry me! If we make a party on New Year’s, I got a date for that party. You don’t like her? That’s too bad!”

p.s. Term’s over! But I’ll come back to blogging full time only after the exams.