Friday, January 9, 2015

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actress 1939

The Contenders:
Bette Davis: Dark Victory
Vivien Leigh: Gone with the Wind (winner)
Greer Garson: Goodbye, Mr. Chips
Irene Dunne: Love Affair
Greta Garbo: Ninotchka

What’s Missing

To my mind, there are a couple of obvious misses for Best Actress in 1939. The first is Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz. The second is Jean Arthur in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. I think a case might be made for Jean Arthur a second time in Only Angels Have Wings, but I like here a lot better in Mr. Smith and it’s a better role, too. I don’t have a lot of other suggestions here. I would, though, given the chance, replace two of the actual nominees with the two I’ve suggested, and I’d do it in a heartbeat.

Weeding through the Nominees

5: I like Greer Garson just fine. I even like her pretty well in Goodbye, Mr. Chips. I simply don’t think the role is big enough to warrant a Best Actress nomination. She’s great when she’s on camera here and I like her chemistry with Robert Donat. They’re a good couple and a lot of that comes from Garson herself. But it feels like she’s in less than half the movie. True, what happens to her sets up the end, but that all comes from Donat, not her. A good performance, but it was nominated for the wrong statue.

4: I feel a little guilty putting Irene Dunne fourth, because the reason is beyond her control. For its time, Love Affair was a fine movie. With the benefit of this many years’ hindsight, though, it pales in comparison to its remake, An Affair to Remember. Dunne is penalized by having someone else play the same role and play it better a number of years later. I can’t fault her for that, but it’s simply the truth. Perhaps I’d have agreed with this nomination in 1939, but right now, knowing what I know, I think my two suggestions were stronger choices.

3: I don’t like putting Bette Davis third, and I contemplated this for a long time. Should Davis be middle of the pack? Ultimately, I’ve decided she should, and in the company she’s in, I’ve also decided that it’s no shame. Dark Victory is one of those rare films where Davis plays an entirely sympathetic character. I love when actors play against type, and so it’s no surprise that I like Davis as a coldhearted bitch, but I love her when I feel sympathy for her. In Dark Victory, I do. It’s not my favorite of her performances, but it’s near the top, an in another year, I’d give her the statue.

2: Taking a role like Ninotchka was a stretch for Greta Garbo, and it’s one she was right to take. I think this is my favorite Garbo film and my favorite of her roles, in part because it’s so well written and in part because Garbo plays so well against her image. That said, I think she’s better in the first half of the film before the icy veneer breaks and she becomes human. When she’s deadly serious, she’s also screamingly funny. Still, I love when actors challenge themselves, and this was a challenge that Garbo met beautifully.

My Choice

1: But it really has to go to Vivien Leigh. Last week, I said that Gone with the Wind is not my favorite film from 1939, but Leigh’s performance as Scarlett O’Hara is probably the best single acting performance of its year. Leigh needed to make Scarlett everything Scarlett was—terrible, bitchy, catty, desirable, sympathetic, and ultimately uplifting. And it’s all there on the screen. Scarlett O’Hara is one of the iconic screen roles in part because of the film it’s in, but make no mistake—with a lesser actor in the part or a lesser performance from Vivien Leigh, Scarlett O’Hara doesn’t crawl her way to the top of that heap. Leigh deserved to win, and the Academy was right to reward her.

Final Analysis


  1. You're right Garson's rather small role. And if the choice were between Dunne, Davis and Garbo, this would be a very difficult category.

    But throw in Gone with the Wind and it suddenly gets a lot easier. There's several reasons why GWTW is one of the most-loved of American films, and the role of Vivien Leigh in the film's success can hardly be overestimated.

    For performances not yet mentioned, I want to bring up Maureen O'Hara for The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Betty Field for Of Mice and Men. These two actresses, especially Field, don't get nearly enough credit for their contributions to the great year of 1939.

    And I don't even want to start digging into the thorny question of which of the stars of The Women might have deserved nominations!

    1. Leigh's performance really is that good and that important. There's a reason it hasn't died off. And don't forget that she had to stand up to Clark Gable on screen as well, which was no small feat.

      Betty Field was good, but I'm not sure her part was big enough for the nomination. Supporting? I might go for that.

    2. Betty Field does a lot with her screen time. When I think of Of Mice and Men, the first thing that comes to mind is the scene where she's eating dinner with Curly (wonderful wonderful Bob Steele) and an older man I think is Curly's father, and the two men are eating like pigs. Curly takes half the apple pie and smushes it up in a bowl and pours milk on it and starts eating it like cereal. And Betty Field is so disgusted! I love her in that scene and it's a great role.

      It may be a small role but I think there's enough there for a nomination, though I admit I'm not sure it's in the top five for 1939, especially when you factor in The Women.

  2. Vivian Leigh was Scarlett O'Hara. Have you seen any of the tests for the part? None of the other actresses even comes close. Good call. Agree that Garson and Field were supporting as well.

    1. I haven't seen any of the screen tests, but I seriously can't imagine anyone else in the part. Except maybe Carol Burnett.

  3. As I understand it there was quite a scramble to get that part in GWTW and apparently many were surprised it finally went to Leigh. In hindsight is was a no-brainer, but not at the time.
    I agree on your 3rd and 2nd if for no other reason than that I have not seen the films at 4th and 5th. Though they must have been good to boot out Judy Garland and Jean Arthur.

    1. Those performances are good, but Garland and Arthur absolutely should have gotten those two nominations. They might still end up fourth and fifth for me, but they deserved to be in the running.

  4. I agree Arthur was probably deserving of a nomination for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. I'd consider O'Sullivan for The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but Laughton's performance dominates the film, so hers might be lessened by that.

    Among the nominees I haven't seen Love Affair yet. Among the other four - it pains me to say this because I hated the character of Scarlett O'Hara, but I think Leigh is the one who should have won. There is certainly the argument that if she was able to generate that strong a reaction from me, even though it was hate, then she certainly inhabited the role without holding back.

    1. If nothing else, her role was important. And I think we're supposed to hate her a little bit (or a lot). Scarlett is easy ot hate. That's part of the point with her.

      You've seen An Affair to Remember, so you've really seen the best version of that story that exists.