Molly Brown hollered and bucked like a wild bronco anxious to jump the rural fence and prance into Denver society, but she was constantly being reined in by discouraging circumstances. She lost a fortune, lost her friends, lost her husband, and finally found herself sailing on the doomed ship Titanic, but each time you think circumstances would get her down, she would rise again shouting "I Ain't Down Yet!". Indeed, she was unsinkable.
In her role as Molly Brown in The Unsinkable Molly Brown, Debbie Reynolds gave it her all in a bravado performance that breathed life into a woman that would have become just another obscure character in history. She justly deserved her Best Actress Oscar nomination for 1964. But she didn't win the golden statuette that year...and that surely must have got Debbie down.
Who were her competitors for the Best Actress award?
- Anne Bancroft in The Pumpkin Eater
- Kim Stanley in Seance on a Wet Afternoon
- Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins
- Sophia Loren in Marriage Italian Style
Let's take a look at these performances. Sophia Loren had earned her first Best Actress Oscar just three years prior for her portrayal of an Italian widow who gets raped in Two Women. Another Oscar-winning actress, Anna Magnani, was intended to play the part but turned it down. Loren proved that she had acting talent in addition to a busty figure and that made quite a large splash in the Hollywood scene. Also Italian films were all the rage during the late 1950s-early 1960s so, while Loren did a great performance in Marriage Italian Style, getting a nomination may have also been the "in" thing for the voters to do.
Anne Bancroft's performance in the highly-depressing The Pumpkin Eater, was not nearly as good as her portrayal of Helen Keller's teacher Anne Sullivan in The Miracle Worker ( 1962 ) for which she did win the award as Best Actress. End of that argument. Kim Stanley did a really good job in Seance on a Wet Afternoon, and she had plenty of laurels for that part - she was nominated for a BAFTA award, won the New York Critics Circle award and won Best Actress for the National Board of Review. She could have gone for a sweep with the Oscar too, but compared to Debbie Reynold's part, it just didn't cut the grade.
That leads me to the final competitor, and the winner of the 1964 Best Actress Award - Julie Andrews. You won't find a more devoted fan of Mary Poppins then myself but, as much as I loved Julie Andrews performance, it wasn't Oscar-worthy. Her singing was beautiful, as was Julie herself; her comradery with the children adorable, and her final-parting look touching....but it still wasn't a performance that would make you say "I hope she won an Oscar for this, because she was fabulous!".
But that's exactly what would be said about Debbie Reynolds' performance as Molly Brown. Debbie raised a ruckus in one hell of a great performance. She hollered till her voice went hoarse, swung from a tree, was bellyed up to the bar in a rousing dance sequence, was stomped on, kicked about, and shouted at, and yet she still managed to give a touching and sympathetic performance of a rough country bumpkin. She transformed Molly from being a young illiterate backwoods girl into a glamorous world-travelling society woman with backbone.
Molly Brown was a part that Tammy Grimes had made popular in the Broadway version of The Unsinkable Molly Brown, co-starring with Harve Presnell. Presnell reprised his role in his screen debut, but Grimes did not have a name with movie audience drawing-power. Producers Roger Edens and Laurence Weingarten wanted Shirley MacLaine for the part, but Shirley was locked in a contract at the time for another film, so Debbie was offered it. However, director Charles Walters was hoping Debbie would turn it down and even asked her to decline it. When she asked "Why?", he commented that she was too short. Like Molly Brown would have done herself, Debbie retorted "Just how short is the part?" and ended the discussion.
Throughout the film she fought to prove the part suited her, and did it ever! Even non-fans of Ms. Reynolds can't help but agree because Debbie and the real Molly Brown share a lot in common: they are both hard-working, tough-as-nails, glamorous, spunky women, and when the going gets tough that's when they really shine. Debbie considered this her favorite film and, after she lost the Oscar to Julie Andrews, you can imagine her telling herself "I Ain't Down Yet".
This post is our contribution to The Oscars Snubs Blogathon being hosted by The Midnite Drive-In and yours truly, Silver Scenes. Click here to read more posts on films, stars, and craftsmen who have been snubbed at the Oscars. Enjoy!