Come Back, Little Sheba
First screened in March 2000 / Most recently screened in August 2013
Director: Daniel Mann. Cast: Shirley Booth, Burt Lancaster, Terry Moore, Richard Jaeckel, Philip Ober, Lisa Golm, Edwin Max, Walter Kelley. Screenplay: Ketti Frings (based on the play by William Inge).

Twitter Capsule: Try as I might, I can't see the magic in Shirley Booth's performance, which bowled the world over in 1952.

VOR:   Whatever I think of it, the central performance has remained a touchstone. Even if you grant its achievement or influence, though, this is pretty standard Broadway cinema.

Photo © 1952 Paramount Pictures
It isn't so much that Shirley Booth is bad in Come Back, Little Sheba as that the play itself is so banal and transparent in its construction and destination that the illuminating power of the actress, any actress, is limited. That said, apart from what a terrible year 1952 was for Best Actress candidates, I'll never understand the devotion Booth inspired among audiences and Oscar voters. Booth won a Tony for originating the role on stage, and it's possible that at a further remove her characterization was more effective. Cooped up right alongside her, though, in the Delaneys' two-floor house, it's an awful stretch to imagine that Lola is the faded beauty described in Inge's play. Booth and Burt Lancaster, uncharacteristically stolid as her alcoholic husband, don't seem to have anything between them, not even the flat field of disappointment, not even the connective tissue of a past mutual embarrassment, which is what Inge's script supplies to them. Booth's aggressively nasal and plaintive performance and Lancaster's downcast and aloof one represent totally different styles, and though both of them are watchable, all you do is watch. Nothing comes alive at you. Nothing roots us to the Delaneys, and in turn nothing grounds them in any world except that of Inge's creaky schemata.

Inge, for his part, crafted quite a career for someone with a constitutional impatience for nuance or depth. As in Picnic—his most famous play, just as silly as this one—characters all move from Point A to Point B on a vector of predictable middle-class enlightenment: not the kind of moralism that, say, judges a couple who only married to legitimate a pregnancy, but the kind which fussily and smugly exists to say, of course we won't judge this couple just because they married to legitimate a pregnancy. Come Back, Little Sheba makes an "issue" out of an utter non-issue, and as if acknowledging that dramatic dead-end, the material makes a further bid for social relevance by coming out firmly against drunkenness. Meanwhile, the real drama of the piece—Doc Delaney is simply tired of his wife—is sapped of its power because Booth's mannerisms are, in fact, quite tiring. A subplot involving Marie (Terry Moore), a young, nubile boarder in the front room of the house, generates a little excitement, mostly in the shape of Richard Jaeckel's blunt, caddish performance as the schoolgirl's dirty-minded boyfriend. The only reason for this plot to occupy the same story as the Delaneys' is so that we might wonder about the parallels or frictions between these two couples, and so the Delaneys might wonder about the same thing. Unfortunately, director Daniel Mann lays on the Subtext so thick (Doc is fascinated by Marie, Lola by both of the youngsters) that there's nothing left in Inge's thin blueprint to gratify further attention. It's a remarkably easy film to skim right over, and you still catch everything that's going on. A light clicks on every time Mann tries to win Booth the Academy Award, goading her through a semi-hypnotized salsa dance on a couch that must have spoken to someone, somewhere, as a legitimate figuration of the squelched passions or dreams of Eisenhower-era housewifery. To this viewer, it looks forced and overdone, while the play is limp and undercooked. Only the photography of James Wong Howe is a truly rewarding pleasure, and that isn't enough. Grade: C

Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Actress: Shirley Booth
Best Supporting Actress: Terry Moore
Best Film Editing: Warren Low

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture (Drama)
Best Actress (Drama): Shirley Booth

Other Awards:
Cannes Film Festival: International Prize (Dramatic); Special Mention for Acting (Booth)
New York Film Critics Circle: Best Actress (Booth)
National Board of Review: Best Actress (Booth)

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