Sunday, May 27, 2007

Smacking Over at Stinky's, and a Hutton Highlight

I finally got off my erratic blogging butt this month and contributed to a Smackdown over here at Stinkylulu’s. The Oscar-nominated supporting actress performances from a strong year (1950) will be reviewed by dear Stinky and his guest panel. I don’t think my opinion regarding the work of the chosen five is too controversial, with one high-profile exception I’ve never been able to stomach (literally: I’ve threatened to puke if she wins the Smackdown). One of my two favorites is finally seeing the light of day on DVD after many years removed from society. Stinkylu’s detailed take on any given Supporting Actress race always makes compelling reading, so head on over and check it out if you’re of Stinky’s “actressexual” persuasion.

The recent passing of Betty Hutton, one of filmdom’s biggest stars during the 1940’s through the early 50’s, had me pondering anew another great, somewhat unheralded 1950 performance: Hutton as Annie Oakley in the MGM smash-hit version of Irving Berlin’s legendary Broadway musical, Annie Get Your Gun. Hutton desperately wanted to create the role of Oakley on film, seeing the part as the career-topper for her it indeed turned out to be (Annie was one of MGM’s top grossers that year, and Hutton landed on the cover of Time magazine for her efforts). When Judy Garland bowed out of the film early on in shooting (despite her great vocal work, the footage of the pale, wan Garland as Annie makes it clear it was in her best interests for the studio to replace her) Hutton enthusiastically stepped into the role of a lifetime. Watching the already-vital Hutton push her talents (and emotions) as far as they’ll go in Annie provides a viewer with the rare opportunity to see a star truly giving her all for the sake of her craft.

Hutton’s most impressive feat may be her original take on Annie. It would have been tempting to (and somewhat risky not to) follow the lead of Ethel Merman, who had scored so hugely in the role on Broadway; however, comparing the Broadway Cast recording and the movie’s soundtrack, it's obvious Hutton intended to roll the dice and play Annie her own way. There’s a rich emotional resonance and a sense of realism in Hutton’s work- she appears to be attempting to become Annie more than simply act the part, and her instinctive understanding of the character is complete. In early scenes, Hutton goes a bit overboard on the theatrics via her all-out approach to the role, yet she’s still a compelling, unforgettable presence onscreen, especially while literally blasting her way through “You Can’t Get a Man With a Gun.”

Although Hutton’s often appropriately bombastic, she also shades Annie with a touching vulnerability that helps keep her playing richly human. In addition, Hutton shows unusual perception in listening and reacting during a song. Watch Hutton’s despondent, silent facial expressions during costar Howard Keel’s “The Girl I Marry,” as Annie realizes she completely lacks the qualities Wild Bill is seeking in his ideal woman. Due to Hutton's vivid (and true) emoting, it’s one of the most moving moments found in a musical, and fans used to Hutton’s “out there,” sometimes overbearing style may be surprised by the emotional delicacy the star manages in Annie’s quieter moments. Compare the vivid lifeforce Hutton comes across as during the rousing first rendition of “There’s No Business Like Show Business” (with Keel, Louis Calhern, and Keenan Wynn) to her latter, somewhat more subdued take on the song, wherein it slowly dawns on Annie she’s become a star: these very different interpretations of “Business” make it clear Hutton understands there are many complexities hidden underneath Oakley’s gruff backwoods origins (and Hutton again proves she's remarkably gifted at reacting to lyrics during the first take on "Business": as her costars stand behind her extolling the virtures of life in the theater, Hutton's face grows more and more rhapsodic until, overcome with euphoria, her Annie finally lets out with "There's NO people like SHOW people!!" in such believable fashion that for once a viewer buys a character spontaneously bursting out in song). Of course, there’s plenty of Hutton’s signature rambunctious charm on display elsewhere, and she’s at her funniest squaring off against her equally-imposing (if more laid-back) costar during their sharpshooter contests and their intense verbal shoot-out, “Anything You Can Do.”

After achieving a personal triumph with Annie and headlining the 1952 Oscar-winning blockbuster, The Greatest Show on Earth Hutton, as much a fireball offscreen as she was on, walked out of her Paramount contract, and never regained her footing as a show business headliner. However, anyone who’s seen her in Annie won’t forget Hutton’s endearing vitality and substantial talent, and the film makes a fan wish Hutton had received more opportunities to display her gifts in first-class vehicles during her volatile career.