Simone Signoret in Room at the Top (1959)

Simone Signoret won her Oscar for playing Alice Aisgill in Room at the Top (1959).

Room at the Top is one of my favourite movies; everything about it is perfect – the score (Fantastic), the direction, the acting and the script. I love how gritty, dark and depressingly realistic the story is, and how it goes all out to portray the awfulness of people in general. Hermione Baddeley received a supporting actress nod for a 2 minutes 19 seconds performance, which in my opinion is quite deserved although she is no Beatrice Straight. And Laurence Harvey couldn’t be even more amazing here; I really feel that he deserved that Oscar more than Charlton Heston.

As usual, there have been a couple of debates over whether Signoret’s performance is a leading or supporting one. To me, despite her limited screentime, she is clearly the lead actress of her film as her story has enough weight to constitute a major portion of the central storyline. Simone Signoret’s features are one of the most unique ever, and even though one could argue that she was no longer at the prime of her beauty (I still think she has aged extremely beautifully in this film), there’s no denying that her presence is always felt in this movie. I can only compare her to Catherine Deneuve in Indochine (not a very popular performance, I’m aware) – they don’t say that much and disappear for quite a major portion of their films, and yet they have such a haunting and long-lasting effect on the viewers. They are like that “mysterious lady” who is always described in poems and songs. Be it the scene where she and Harvey were smoking in the car (their eyes when they look at each other OMG), or her final expression where Joe leaves her…it just stays with you.

Re-watching the film this time round made me realise how little Signoret was given to work with,and this made me triple my respect for her performance even more. Alice almost never reveals her true feelings until the second half of the film, and yet one could understand and feel for her so well. In the beginning, even though she is the one lending a listening ear to Joe’s ramblings, you always get the feeling that she needed him with her. She never expresses her desire for Joe and always plays hard to get, and she also never outwardly expresses her sadness over her awful marriage, but her eyes always tell a different story.

Gradually, Alice “lowers her defenses” as she calls it, and reveals her inner feelings little by little. It is through these moments where we start to see the vulnerability, the sadness and the loneliness. It is heartbreaking, because we know that at the end of the day, she is just being made used of. I will never forget the farewell scene at the train station,and how she made a simple line like “it’s only a lifetime” sound so heartbreaking. And her final scene where she told Joe that he is better than the people “at the top” was wonderful. It just reveals how intelligent Alice actually is, but unfortunately nobody saw that in her.

Ultimately, this is a terrific performance which I grew to appreciate a lot more than I initially did. While I don’t flat-out love it as some people do, I really understand where the immense love for it is coming from. A deserved Oscar win. 4.5/5.

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