It's The Battle of the Blondes,
or Girls Gone Wild!
The thirty-third Oscar ceremony was held at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in April, 1961. Much of the drama that year was provided by Elizabeth Taylor. Understandably so. In the space of little more than 12 months, LaLiz married Eddie Fisher, made Butterfield 8 almost against her will and yet still gave a magnetic performance, negotiated the (then unheard of) salary of $1 million to do Cleopatra, traveled to Europe to play the Queen of the Nile, contracted pneumonia and nearly died, saved by a tracheotomy that left a visible scar on her throat. Shirley MacLaine, nominated alongside Taylor for Best Actress that year, joked that she didn't lose to Taylor's onscreen performance as Gloria, but instead to her tracheotomy.
But the more interesting category was Best Supporting Actress,
which saw two sunny blondes play against type and
get rewarded with Oscar nominations
Shirley Jones was 26 years old and already a showbiz veteran. A beauty queen ("Miss Pittsburgh of 1952") with a voice like an angel, Shirley became the first and only singer under contract to Rodgers and Hammerstein. She made her movie debut in Oklahoma! and went on star in Carousel and April Love. In 1956 she married actor/singer Jack Cassidy and by Oscar night in 1961 she was mother to toddler (and future teen idol) Shaun Cassidy and preparing to start on The Music Man.
Amid the musicals and family fare, she made Elmer Gantry, a widely-anticipated, big budget project with impressive literary cred. Burt Lancaster had the title role as the charismatic evangelist who sold religion as if it was laundry detergent. Jean Simmons was prim Sister Sharon, a true believer who lacks Gantry's charm and oratory skills. And, cast completely against type, Shirley was prostitute Lulu Baines. While showing off curves no one dreamed she had, Shirley also exposed Lulu's dark side -- revealing her disillusionment and cynicism, her appetite for revenge and then finally, her remorse. It's a gritty performance, made all the more jarring because this is the girl we saw warbling alongside Gordon MacRae in the surrey with the fringe on top.
By Oscar night, 34-year-old Janet Leigh was also an established fan favorite. Her career had a fairy tale beginning. College student Jeannette Morrison was on a school break, visiting her parents at the ski resort where Dad worked the front desk and Mom was on the cleaning staff. She was discovered by vacationing movie queen Norma Shearer, who helped Jeannette get an MGM screen test and a new name. As Janet Leigh, she made her debut alongside Van Johnson in 1947's The Romance of Rosey Ridge. Her fresh-faced prettiness and natural screen presence won her roles in Little Women, Holiday Affair and My Sister Eileen. Orson Welles saw her potential as a serious actress and cast her as Charlton Heston's wife in Touch of Evil.
Like Shirley Jones, Janet Leigh had a husband "in the business." Tony Curtis was a major star and he and Janet had two young girls. Like Shirley Jones' son, Shaun Cassidy, Janet's daughter Jamie Lee Curtis also became a successful second-generation performer.
The similarities end there, because the movie that brought Janet to the Academy Awards was very different from the prestigious, studio-backed Elmer Gantry. Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho was a small budget, black and white horror flick loosely based on the lurid tale of serial killer Ed Gein. While Elmer Gantry was set against a backdrop of religion, Psycho was immersed in matricide and confused sexuality. The subject matter was considered so offensive that the studio nearly didn't distribute it. (Ironically, Universal suggested Shirley Jones for Psycho but, as legend has it, Hitchcock was dismissive of the notion.)
Today, Psycho is unarguably the more influential film, and Janet Leigh's Marion Crane is one of cinema's iconic roles. Marion is involved with a married man. This was a change of pace for Janet, who was more likely cast as wife than mistress. Leigh successfully captures Marion's ennui. We understand that she's tired of waiting for Sam (John Gavin) to leave his wife, tired of her boring office job, tired of being dutiful. She sees an opportunity to get her hands on $40,000 -- money that could mean freedom for her and Sam -- and she grabs it. On her way out of town, she gets caught in a blinding rainstorm and stops at the Bates Motel. After sharing a lonely sandwich supper with inn keeper Norman (Anthony Perkins), she has a change of heart and decides to go back home in the morning and ask forgiveness. She celebrates with a cleansing shower. And the rest, as they say, is history. Well before the movie is half over, her role is complete. But the memory is indelible. That famous shower sequence is horrifying because of Hitchcock's peerless direction and scoring, and because Janet Leigh's Marion is so vulnerable and relateable that we can imagine ourselves in that bathroom.
And the Oscar went to ... Shirley Jones. Let's not forget that three other (blonde) actresses were also nominated for Best Supporting Actress of 1960: Glynnis Johns for The Sundowners, Shirley Knight in Dark at the Top of the Stairs, and Mary Ure for Sons and Lovers.
About the Blogathon:
"Aurora of Once Upon a Screen, Paula of Paula's Cinema Club and Kellee of Outspoken and Freckled are hosting a new, mammoth blogathon event that coincides with Turner Classic Movies’ 31 Days of Oscar, February 1 to March 3, 2013. It’ll be a month filled with fabulous tales and screen wonders." I encourage you to check out other entries.