…In relentless pursuit of all performances nominated and won!
Having always been a tremendous fan of the great Rosalind Russell, watching this overly-long, depressing melodrama made me realize even more what a shame it truly was that Russell was not nominated for far worthier stuff. Versatile ‘Roz’ Russell was graced with 4 Best Actress Oscar nominations in her long career – for this film in 1947, My Sister Eileen in 1942, Sister Kenny in 1946, and as the flamboyant Auntie Mame in 1958 (a role she truly made memorable and iconic). Sadly, this highly talented actress never won the golden boy. Rightfully, she should have been nominated and won for her savvy, snappy role opposite Cary Grant in the brilliant His Girl Friday (1940), or even secured a supporting nod for her gossipy portrayal of Sylvia Fowler in the catty The Women (1939).
Mourning Becomes Electra, based upon a stage play by Eugene O’Neill, is loosely based on the Greek mythical story of Orestes. The heavy three-part potboiler is centered around the affluent but morally deteriorating New England Mannon family at the very end of the Civil War. Lust, lies, greed, avarice, and yes, even incest are rampant as the drama slowly unfolds over a good, long 2 hours and 40 minutes. The fact that this wasn’t set in the Civil War South almost astounds me – the plot harkens so much to the passionate melodramas typically set in that time.
Both mother Christine Mannon (Katina Paxinou) and daughter Lavinia (Russell – only 7 years Paxinou’s junior and almost too old in the part) are madly in love with the same man (Leo Genn). It is eventually revealed that this self-same lover is in fact their bastard nephew/cousin, respectively. Passionate jealousy among mother and daughter ensues, marked with frequent clenched-fist, jutting-chin confrontations. Add to the general hullabaloo the return of the family patriarch, played in an almost sad, understated manner by Raymond Massey. Christine swiftly acts with her lover to ‘dispose of’ her husband, and when devoted daughter Lavinia finds out, she enlists the help of (also returning from the war) brother Orrin (Michael Redgrave) to expose and confront their mother for her treachery. Orrin, disgustingly smitten and in love with his mother to over-the-top Oedipal extremes, fiercely resists Lavinia (the scenes between Paxinou and Redgrave are almost unsettling to watch). Meanwhile, waiting in the wings and barely registering a mark on this convoluted plot are Lavinia’s and Orrin’s potential suitors, brother and sister Peter and Hazel Niles (a young Kirk Douglas and Nancy Coleman).
Worse comes to worse – Christine spars with Lavinia, Orrin is tossed between them both… and the tragedy crescendoes into both murderous and suicidal gunshots ringing out among the Northern ‘plantation’. The mournful, corny strains of “Old Shenandoah” acts as the film’s central score underneath (and by hour 2 made me thoroughly sick of that song, truly).
O’Neill was never known for writing happy-go-lucky plays, so it is a given from the start that Mourning Becomes Electra will be no song-and-dance (the title itself gives it away). And I suppose director Dudley Nichols should be given credit for taking on so ambitious a project at the time – so I will tip my hat slightly to him. A little bit of research online revealed that this film does enjoy a slight cult following and has its fans. I stand my ground, however, that this nomination for Russell may have been a consolation prize on behalf of the Academy for ignoring some of her earlier and more worthy achievements. This is not her one of her strongest performances, and it’s really too bad. Surprisingly, rumor has it that Russell was so convinced she had won the Oscar that year that she committed the faux pas at the ceremony of prematurely standing up – just as the winner, Loretta Young’s name was announced (for The Farmer’s Daughter). I won’t fault her this “oops” moment, for I still maintain that Russell was, sincerely, one of our most underrated actresses. There will never be another like her.