We revisit the movie year of 1951 as the next Smackdown supporting actress approaches. Like always Nick Taylor will propose some alternatives to the Oscar ballot.
Surely we all remember Jan Sterling from 1954’s excellent Smackdown, whose performance as the “anxious catfishing pioneer” in The High and the Mighty gave a misogynistic role in one of the only moments of true pathos in the entire movie. This disaster movie was enough critical and box office success to warrant its nomination, but just like Katy Jurado in spear broken and even Nina Foch in Executive suite (which I love!) From the same lineup, the energy around Sterling’s nomination smacks of more than a bit of belated recognition.
In Sterling’s case, that missed opportunity happened in 1951. Beford, the National Board of Review, introduced supporting categories to their own awards, they gave her Best Actress for her supporting role as a bored, opportunistic wife of a man trapped in Billy Wilder. Ace in the hole. But poor reception Ace in the hole received for his blatant cynicism about the noble professions of journalism and public service may have snuffed out his chances before category confusion kicked in. It’s a shame because Sterling’s performance is absolutely essential to Wilder’s mix of blasé, banal villainy and calculated entrepreneurship…
The unambiguous center of Ace in the hole is Chuck Tatum, played by Kirk Dougas with ruthless, black-hearted machismo. Chuck enters the film sitting in his car and reading the local newspaper as it is towed down the main street of a New Mexico town. He’s looking for a job after drinking, cheating and lying in eleven major newspapers across the country, and the only place he can hope to find work is a small joint like the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin. Chuck spends a year languishing in an uneventful job in a boring town, wasting his talent for sensationalism and staying sober the entire time. One day, Chuck and a photographer half his age named Herbie (Robert Arthur) are sent to cover an annual rattlesnake hunt in a podunk town. Luckily for Chuck, they stumble upon a horrific and suspenseful incident, and he begins to calculate how to turn this into a tale that will take him back to his former glories.
Sterling arrives unceremoniously in Ace in the hole, coming sideways in frame towards Chuck and Herbie’s car with a large wrapped blanket and a giant can of coffee. You wonder for a second if she’s a hitchhiker before she says she’s bringing supplies to a hubbub on the mountain. She introduces herself as Lorraine, Mrs. Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), and tells Tatum that her husband has once again found himself trapped in a meltdown while searching for ancient Native American artifacts he was selling to support their hectic post / restaurant. It’s not the first time but it’s the deepest he’s ever been stuck.
Lorraine recites all of this to Chuck with bored disinterest. It’s debatable whether Lorraine is just used to Leo getting stuck in, but Sterling’s jaded displeasure with the town and her husband’s business prevents us from assuming she’s flippant. There’s no sense that she cares if he makes it out alive. The only time we see her smile is when she overhears Chuck dictating Leo’s story on his phone to a poor editor – Lorraine can already sense the incoming attention. Still, she tries to leave town the next day, traveling as far as $11 can take her. Chuck attempts to persuade Lorraine to stay with sentimental arguments, but she shoots down the very idea of caring for Leo, claiming that suffering with no money in the middle of nowhere for five years of marriage is more than enough.
Lorraine counters that Chuck might care about their marriage and only wants her there to sell a better story for her newspaper. So the journalist ends up convincing her to stay for one reason only: the money. The publicity of Chuck’s coverage of the accident will draw crowds large enough to make up for the despair of the past five years with one customer a day. Who wouldn’t want to show their support for this devoted and trapped husband by supporting his business? Shit, there are already people coming to assist with the rescue. Lorraine listens to Chuck’s statement without turning to look at him until he walks away, and Sterling turns her heavy, restless gaze into a symphony of utter anxiety as she internally debates whether to stay in this hole at all. rats for a few more days worth the money.
Yet Sterling plays it all with flippant, minimalistic control. Ace in the hole thrives on contrasting the focused, utterly human sadness of what its characters choose to do with a fairly bare-bones style and storyline, especially by the standards of Wilder’s earlier film, sunset boulevard. Where Douglas keeps Chuck’s monstrosity just enough to get what he wants, Sterling’s starchy, terse demeanor has no performative angle to speak of. Another actress might have pushed harder and more ostentatiously to embody moral rot, but there’s no grotesqueness in the hard edges Sterling gives Lorraine. I love that Sterling never hints if Lorraine’s jaded veneer was shaped by her current unhappiness or if that’s how she’s always been. There is no story to evaluate, no grounds to judge it. She uses Leo as much as the mountain-watching crowds of suckers or the reporters hovering like vultures, but there’s a candor in her boredom and bitterness that separates her from the rest of them even as she comes to terms with her own. delusions of purpose and camaraderie.
It doesn’t take long for Chuck’s scheme to pay big dividends for Lorraine, whose store is finally filled with customers from opening to closing. The next time he sees Lorraine in private, she won’t stop smiling. It’s a small smile, barely qualifying as a smile, but Sterling’s face still lights up tremendously; it’s the first time we’ve seen anything behind his eyes besides antipathy, and it’s one of the only instances of happiness anyone expressing in the film. You can practically hear scammer‘s Jennifer Lopez cooing “Don’t money make you horny?” in his ear, and the answer is an emphatic “yes” which Sterling chooses to play with a soft, romantic tune. It’s impossible to tell whether she’s attracted to Chuck, his skill at his job, the lucrative business he’s brought her, or some confusing mix that will inevitably dissipate without the financial success he’s created for her. What’s more impressive is that Sterling makes this quiet joy unexpectedly moving, conveying the sincerity of her sentiment without suggesting that Lorraine has mellowed in any real way. It makes you wonder how loose this woman is, how tight she must be to look so aggressively bored. As a result, Sterling’s physical restraint elsewhere shines even more clearly as the actor’s control; he’s a stuck-up dissatisfied character, not a stiff actor who fails to move.
Chuck does not have this change in his behavior. Their relationship would then change violently and drastically in later encounters, largely informed by the developments surrounding Leo’s rescue and Chuck’s own prospects for success.
Lorraine isn’t spotlighted enough to take on Wilder’s more canonized female characters, so it’s a testament to her own courage as an actress that Lorraine emerges as such an intriguing figure in her own right, rather than just a pawn. in Chuck’s story. Sterling lets Lorraine’s appetites, discontents and ambitions shine through in fine expressions and gestures while showing all the ways this woman has willfully closed herself off. Is there a better world waiting for him there? Who knows. Unlike Gwyneth last month, I have a sad feeling that this is probably the most exciting part of Lorraine’s life. But the moment she leaves Ace in the holeit’s hard to believe there’s anything left for her here, and even harder not to realize how fascinating and unexpected a character Sterling has made her.
Ace in the Hole is currently streaming on Criterion Channel and Amazon Prime, and is available to rent on most major services.