Thursday, 5 March 2015

Alternate Best Actor 1956: Eli Wallach in Baby Doll

Eli Wallach did not receive an Oscar nomination, despite being nominated for a Golden Globe, for portraying Silva Vacarro in Baby Doll.

Baby Doll is a good enough film darkish comedy about two rival businessman and one of the rivals' young wife.

Eli Wallach made his theatrical film debut in Baby Doll, a highly controversial film at the time although like the Moon is Blue though it seems extremely tame now. Wallach plays an Italian immigrant and successful owner of a cotton gin mill, much to the consternation of his local competition including Archie Lee Meighan (Karl Malden). We are first introduced to Silva as he is celebrating his success. Wallach proves himself immensely capable as a film actor in his first try in a major production from his transition from the stage. This transition is not always so smooth as can be seen in the rather broadly acted performances from the cast of The Bad Seed who were reprising their stage roles. Wallach though proves his measure from his first scene clearly having mad the fine adjustments and just naturally portraying Silva great confidence and self satisfaction as he enjoys his success though. The film story though really starts when Archie takes it upon himself to go and burn down Silva's cotton mill.

Wallach effectively elicits sympathy for Silva in portraying an honest distress at seeing the threat to his livelihood. In addition Wallach does well to show the quiet intensity in Silva as he expresses his distaste at the rather relaxed fashion in which the authorities take to finding the true culprit. Seeing nothing but an obvious prejudice to him Silva decides to track down the man likely behind the scheme Archie, since he was the only competitor not in the same room when the fire started. Wallach's quite good as he first speaks with Archie keeping that sly look of suspicion on his face as he watches Archie basically looking for him to give himself up. An easier way though seems to present itself though when Archie reveals his young wife Baby Doll (Carroll Baker). It becomes obvious that Silva wants to derive the information he seeks from her, which leads Silva to spend a great deal of time which her which is basically the focus of the whole middle act of the film.

The scenes between Baker and Wallach are essentially the cause of the original controversy of the film. Although the funny thing about that is that everything still is very much unsaid. Wallach though and Baker though strike up such a particular chemistry though it is possible to see the reasons for the film's controversy right onscreen. Much of their moments early on are merely in stares but there is such a palatable desire in every glance that one might have to comically wipe away the steam away from their glasses. That is to say their scenes together are very erotically charged although in a particularly intriguing way here. The lusty desires between the two are quite apparent in every stare they share and just the way they move with one another even when they are not touching. Of course they go beyond just a lust though and Wallach in particular brings a certain sweetness in Silva's flirtations with Baby Doll. He brings a playfulness into his interactions showing that Silva enjoys his time with her more than just possibly satisfying some more primal desires.

Baby Doll is a bit unique for a film based on anything written by Tennessee Williams in that it's a mostly comedic film, even if it technically has a dramatic core about it, but it never exactly takes itself all that seriously particularly evidenced by Karl Malden's somewhat outrageous performance. Wallach though is shows to have a particularly deft grasp on the material. Wallach finds a rather intricate balance between the more entertaining qualities of the film along with the serious side of thing. For example in his scenes with Baker, where they essentially start playing a game with one another, Wallach does have the right sort of fun in the role as there is certain way in which he presents Silva relishing in playing with Baby Doll. There some slightly absurd moments during the game which Wallach makes fairly enjoyable and lighthearted. Of course that is not all there is to these scenes as Silva is trying to find evidence that Archie burned down his mill. In this regard Wallach is terrific in that he never loses that sense in his eyes that Silva never does lose sight of his goal, which is to get some justice for his loss.

I have to say before watching the film for the first time I expected Wallach to be a more dastardly sort, as is the norm for Wallach. The thing is though Silva really is the hero of the piece as he not only has a just cause, but also even tries to help the other people abused by Archie. Wallach is supremely likable in the role, which should not be too surprising though since he often makes himself rather likable even when he's playing those dastardly parts. It would be easy to see how Silva though could have been turned into just the foreign lover boy stereotype. Wallach though still keeps that harder edge about himself while being more than adequate in producing the more steamy scenes as well. He nicely never pigeonholes the character giving him an actual complexity and doing well to make the relationship between Baby Doll and Silva one with some love rather than simply lust. I do have to say though that I can't categorize Wallach's performance as supporting though. That would take the film to be an ensemble, which it isn't, truly Carroll Baker's show, which it isn't, or for him to be of much less importance than Malden's character, which he is not, in fact it would probably be easier to argue Malden as supporting considering he's missing for some very long stretches in the middle of the film. As a leading performance or supporting one though this is some very fine work from the very underrated Eli Wallach.


RatedRStar said...

Well I loved him here =D, I wonder how close he came to being Oscar nominated, surely he must have been close.

Anonymous said...

@Louis, RatedRStar and anyone else, what were your top ten films of 1956?

Anonymous said...

@Louis: What are your ratings and thoughts on the cast of both this and The Bad Seed?

Louis Morgan said...


1. The Killing
2. Giant
3. The Ten Commandments
4. Lust for Life
5. The Wrong Man
6. Samurai III
7. Attack
8. The Man Who Never Was
9. The Searchers
10. The Green Man

Baker - 4(I don't think she quite maneuvers between the dramatic and comedic nearly as well as Wallach does. Also I feel she's somewhat unsure about her performance at first as she plays Baby Doll as manipulative at first then more naive later on. Her fantastic chemistry though with Wallach though just about makes up for the slight inadequacies of the rest of her work)

Malden - 3.5(This is a case in which I think he actually might as well have gone way overboard instead with his performance. I actually do think he is enjoyable enough though I do feel he might as well gone even further in portrayal the overly emotional fool rather than trying to give him any sense of sanity. I mean Malden does that well enough, but he's quite overshadowed by both Wallach and Baker)

The Bad Seed:

Kelly - 2.5(I never felt her performance quite came together as it should. She rightfully portrays her character as rather explosively emotional in the moment, but never with that great of fervor or intensity. It just never feels as though she goes for the throat in the part, and her whole performance is slightly too much yet still underwhelming)

McCormack - 2.5(She purposefully one note, which is understandable considering the whole idea is being the evil sweet little girl, but I just don't feel she did that note all that well. She's never very scary or that funny if that's what she going for)

Jones - 3.5(I'll admit I probably should like him less, and wholly understand if one were to think he was terrible. I thought his performance though was an over the top hoot doing the creepy gardener routine with a wonderfully flamboyant glee)

Heckart - 3(She has some good moments inside of her performance of intense drunkenness with intense grief but her work never becomes nearly as volatile as one would expect. The reason being for me anyways is her excessively theatrical movements that do seem right off the stage so every member of the audience can see. Especially that raise of the glass near the end of her performance that just seems a little too rehearsed)

RatedRStar said...

@Anonymous, Thankfully having seen a few more from the year since Friendly Persuasion was originally there but it is a mixed bag so I needed so see there.

1)Lust For Life
3)The Wrong Man
4)Bigger Than Life
5)Samurai III
6)The Ten Commandments
7)The Killing
8)Invasion Of The Body Snatchers
9)Baby Doll
10)The Searchers

RatedRStar said...

I meant to say " I needed to see more there"

I would assume Kevin McCarthy is a good bet for the bonus reviews Louis =D.

Anonymous said...

Louis what are your ratings and thoughts on Mildred Dunnock in Baby Doll and Mercedes McCambridge in Giant? They were both nominated.

GM said...

I haven't seen the most acclaimed yet
1. A Man Escaped
2. Tea and Sympathy
3. Gervaise
4. Bigger Than Life
5. Baby Doll

Michael McCarthy said...

I kinda figured you'd move him to lead.

GetDonaldSutherlandAnOscar said...

Who are everyone's top 10 actors and also, who are the actors whom you've changed your stance towards most since you started reading Louis' blog

1. James Stewart
2. Tom Courtenay
3. James Cagney
4. John Hurt
5. Christian Bale
6. Alec Guiness
7. Robert Shaw
8. Sidney Poitier
9. Burt Lancaster
10. Rod Steiger

And Robert Shaw has definitely had the biggest leap after Louis introduced me to some of his greatest perfromances, he needs to get back on this blog soon

luke higham said...

GDSAO: I personally don't have it in me to make my personal top ten list, since their's so many worthy of the honour.
My Favourite Actor though is Laurence Olivier, closely followed by James Mason.

RatedRStar said...

top 10 actors whose stance has risen in my books after reading the blog, basically these are the actors I didnt think too much or at least didnt think as highly of until I joined the blog in 2011.

1)Joaquin Phoenix
2)Robert Shaw
3)Laurence Harvey
4)James Cagney
5)Ronald Colman
6)Tatsuya Nakadai
7)Mickey Rourke
8)Richard Farnsworth
9)Brendan Gleeson
10)Tsutomu Yamazaki

Matt Mustin said...

The only actors I can say that I completely changed my mind about are Joaquin Phoenix and Matthew McConaughey.

luke higham said...

Matt Mustin: I'm the same on Phoenix, McConaughey and on a slightly lesser degree, Tom Cruise.

Anonymous said...

Louis what are your ratings and thoughts on Veronica Lake in Sullivan's Travels?

Louis Morgan said...


Dunnock - 2.5(Ah now I've been reminded that's she in the film, also I now remember that she was nominated yet Wallach was not. Anyway she's certainly in the background and being okay at being in the background I guess. The only time she really can even make an impact where she becomes somewhat despondent over Archie's treatment. Dunnock's decent in this moment, but I certainly did not find her all that moving)

McCambridge - 2.5(I like Giant and I like McCambridge in other roles, but there was no reason for this. She's not bad, doing well enough in being the "hard" sister of Hudson's character, I mean McCambridge is great at having an innate roughness anyways. She leaves early on though and there's no reason really to remember her. She just does not make much of an impact)

TParker said...

I love that shot in 'The Misfits' where Silva's declaring revenge on Archie Lee. Look at his eyes. They're wide and passionate with rage, and the flames are dancing in his eyes.

stampschick said...

TParker, you obviously mean "Baby Doll" and not "The Misfits"!

Eli Wallach has recently become my favorite actor by virtue of his ability to be such a chameleon. Many people aren't even aware that he is the actor that played both Silva Vaccaro in "Baby Doll" and Tuco in "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly"! And done without makeup, I might add; just a change of clothes, a beard, hair combed differently, and a totally different personality given to each character. Many character actors, though good actors, always basically look the same from movie to movie, talk the same, act the same (think Walter Brennan, Walter Huston), or even lead actors (too many to name) who seldom change their appearance or mannerisms from one movie to the next. That certainly can't be said of Wallach. To me, that's the difference in being a star, and being an actor. Some are both, but many are merely stars who seldom step out of character. Unfortunately, they are the ones who usually get most of the attention or adulation. Eli Wallach is one of the underrated and under appreciated ACTORS.