The 1959 British film, A Room at the Top was one of the first pictures to present a ruthless critque of the British class system, while simultaneously revealing an uncompromising view of municipal corruption. The story centers on a working class man, Joe Lampton (Laurence Harvey) as he sets his sights on making a name for himself in the good part of town known as “the top.” Arriving from a poor, Northern English village, Joe secures a low-paying job as a government worker. However, he soon realizes that his new occupation will not elevate his status in the world. Joe makes a romantic play for Susan (Heather Sears), the young daughter of a millionaire industrialist. The naive, sheltered Susan is already dating an upwardly mobile man, Jack (John Westbrook), who loathes any man who dares to come near his girlfriend. Susan’s father sends her off to France to break off the budding romance between his daughter and Joe. Joe then turns his affections towards Alice Aisgill (Simone Signoret), a French woman who is an actress and 10 years older than he is. Things are further complicated for Joe when he realizes that Alice is unhappily married to her husband, George (Alan Cuthbertson). As the two spend more time together, Joe’s passion for Alice reaches incredible heights and soon he envisions himself spending the rest of his life with her. When Susan returns from France, Joe is faced with the decision of marrying the wealthy Susan or ignoring his social class aspirations and choosing the sultry Alice. Joe’s ambition to greatness exceeds his talent and when he turns his back on true love, his decision leads to tragedy.
The film, directed by Jack Clayton and adapted to the screen by Neil Paterson from John Braine’s novel, was nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor (Laurence Harvey). The film nabbed two Oscars- one for Best Adapted Screenplay and one for Best Actress (the incredible Simone Signoret). Signoret, who was well-known in French cinema, secured the Best Actress award over such distinguished fellow nominees as Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn and Doris Day. Signoret’s performance as the older, sexy woman grasping for ultimate happiness is truly scorching and despite her win being viewed as an upset, her Best Actress award honored her brilliant work.
Of the film’s three acting nominations, one went to British actress Hermione Baddeley, nominee, (165), for her role as the music teacher, Elspeth. As Alice’s sympathetic friend, Elspeth provides her apartment as a trysting place for Alice and Joe in hopes that the two will become inseperable lovers. Elspeth’s confrontation of Joe towards the end of the film is both heartbreaking and volcanic. Her presence in the film is brief, but incredibly vivid. She serves as a mirror to Joe’s emotional state. Her work is subtle, but very impressive. Baddeley lost the Best Supporting Actress Oscar to Shelley Winters in The Diary of Anne Frank.