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