Friday, September 16, 2016

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actress 1941

The Contenders:

Barbara Stanwyck: Ball of Fire
Greer Garson : Blossoms in the Dust
Olivia de Havilland: Hold Back the Dawn
Bette Davis: The Little Foxes
Joan Fontaine: Suspicion (winner)

What’s Missing

I was a little surprised at the lack of nomination for Maureen O’Hara in How Green Was My Valley, but in retrospect, she may have been more supporting in the role. Barbara Stanwyck is here, but she may have been better served nominated for The Lady Eve. I’m not a huge Veronica Lake fan, but I think maybe Sullivan’s Travels could have gotten her here. A bigger miss is Mary Astor in The Maltese Falcon. One of my favorites of the year is Dorothy Comingore in Citizen Kane, although that role is almost certainly a supporting one. As much as I like Jean Arthur, The Devil and Miss Jones probably wasn’t enough to gain her any consideration.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. So, this is going to be tough. With the exception of my winner, it feels like everyone here deserves to be in third. So, with that, I’m putting Greer Garson in fifth, but I don’t feel good about it. Garson’s performance is fine, but the movie itself is syrupy, so I guess I’m punishing her for that more than anything. She’s the best thing in a fiesta of glurge, which is admittedly damning with faint praise. Garson came into her own the next year, so that assuages my guilt in putting her last this year.

4. We’re in much the same situation with Olivia de Havilland and Hold Back the Dawn. She’s fine in the role, even good in it, but the role itself is so melodramatic and the film so obvious and drippy that it’s hard to take seriously. As was often the case, de Havilland was the best thing in the film (although Paulette Goddard is close), but for a film this telegraphed and soaked in melodrama, that doesn’t say much. I understand the nomination even if I can’t really work up any enthusiasm for the role or the film.

3. I said earlier that it feels like everyone should be in third. I’m putting Joan Fontaine, the eventual winner, here. Suspicion has real problems, not the least of which is casting. The things that actually do work in the film come directly from Fontaine, who is directly responsible for everything the audience knows and how the audience reacts. She is almost entirely the reason anything here is successful. It’s just not enough. Fontaine walks a nice tightrope, but it’s in service of a film not really worth the effort.

2. The only real thing I have against Barbara Stanwyck’s work in Ball of Fire is that the film just isn’t enough. This is a puffball of a film, so lightweight that a single gust of wind would send it flying away. Stanwyck is perfect in the role—goofy, flirty, and sexy. If the film was more than a screwball filled with extreme characters, she’d have a better chance. I was tempted to bump her to the top by virtue of her doing The Lady Eve the same year. Of course, I was also tempted because, y’know, Barbara Stanwyck.

My Choice

1. Bette Davis earned a reputation for playing bitch roles better than anyone. Of Human Bondage and Jezebel may have started that, but The Little Foxes cemented it. There could not be anyone better for this role. It’s a thing of beauty to see Davis at the top of her game being nasty and then getting exactly what she deserves. Davis generally deserved to be in the running through most of her career. This is a case where she not only deserved to be in the running, she deserved to walk away with the statue. Oscar did her wrong for 1941.

Final Analysis


  1. Davis is SLAY ME good in The Little Foxes. Just incredible.

    Joan Fontaine is...unfortunate in that mess of a movie.

    1. Davis really is good in The Little Foxes--about as good as she ever was.

      I don't hate Fontaine in Suspicion. I agree that the movie is a mess, but I think the miscasting of Cary Grant is the biggest issue. Fontaine has to be the focal point of a lot, and a lot of what we know we get through her. It's a better performance than I think you're giving it credit for being. It's not Oscar-winning good, but it's not terrible.

  2. I don't know any of these movies. That is not a good sign.

    1. The Little Foxes is worth it if you're a Davis fan. Ball of Fire is purely goofball fun, and worth it for some very sexy Barbara Stanwyck. Admittedly, I'm biased in that respect.

  3. I love Suspicion and I've probably seen it more times than any other Hitchcock film. When I first saw it, I thought it was pretty good, but I have a huge screen crush on Joan Fontaine, so I watched it a lot just because of her. About the third or fourth time, it really clicked for me. Maybe you have to see it a few times to get used to Cary Grant as the heavy, but when you get past that, it really falls into place.

    (For me, anyway.)

    My second favorite Hitchcock after The Birds.

    Lately, I've been thinking of Suspicion as Hitchcock's weird film noir entry, with most of the menace in Lina's head and Johnnie Aysgarth as the femme fatale.

    Joan Fontaine deserved that Oscar.

    Stanwyck and Davis were great in their respective roles (and I haven't seen the other two performances) but this was Fontaine's year.

    Oscar got it right.

    1. We'll disagree on that. Davis was pretty close to flawless in a role that I don't think anyone else could have done nearly as well. Davis made the film, and it wouldn't be anything close to the same film without her.

  4. I like that idea of a three way third place finish for that trio of performances since they are the ones I'd drop if I could. There were several other performances that should have easily taken their place, two others of which come from Barbara Stanwyck-aside from Lady Eve she's also strong in Meet John Doe. Better than that movie really allows for.

    Of the competing ladies I can't quarrel with Bette Davis as the winner, she makes Regina Giddins a merciless pit viper but manages to add much depth and provide hints into how she became that way. But....Barbara relaxes right into the sassy, flirty Sugarpuss O'Shea proving that she was the most versatile of the iconic classic actresses. No actress could do what she did with her characters and that should have earned her the actual award at some point damn it.

    As to who else should have made the cut rather than de Havilland, Garson and Fontaine beside O'Hara I'd add Joan Crawford in A Woman's Face, Margaret Sullavan for Back Street and the actress who would have been my winner if she'd ever gotten a nomination once in her life-Ida Lupino for Ladies in Retirement. She's mesmerizing as the slowly unraveling hard article Ellen Creed who will do anything to protect her two mad sisters. Like Stanwyck she also had two other great performances this year in High Sierra and The Sea Wolf.

    I've always thought of Mary Astor as supporting in Maltese Falcon and fabulous though she was in her winning performance in The Great Lie it should have been for Falcon instead. I think it was the combo of the two which snagged her the award.

    I love Veronica Lake and I like her in Sullivan's Travels but I don't know about a nom for her there. Now the next year in I Married a Witch she absolutely should have gotten a place.

    1. You're probably right about Astor's performance being more supporting than leading. Still, it's one I genuinely love, even if I think Dorothy Comingore should have taken it for Citizen Kane. And, given my infatuation with Barbara Stanwyck, I naturally agree on her.

      I don't think I ultimately would have wanted Veronica Lake to be nominated here, but I thought she was worth mentioning. Lake had such potential and such a sad career that it would have been nice to see her at or near the top at least once.

  5. Life is just not fair. Davis got two Oscars while Stanwyck got none. Stanwyck is my favorite of the classic actresses so I should be rooting for her. But there is no denying that Davis gave the best performance of the year and one of the best of her career.

    1. My two favorite actresses of the classic era--Barbara Stanwyck and Myrna Loy--won zero Oscars, and Loy was never even nominated. I'm always rooting for Stanwyck, but reality is what it is, and Davis was nigh-perfect.

  6. I had the privilege of watching Jezebel and The Little Foxes with William Wyler's daughters at our library last year. And yes, their dad said Bette Davis was difficult. But you've got to like the end result of their collaborations! Perhaps her winning the Oscar for Jezebel hurt her for The Little Foxes, but I think she'd be my choice here anyway.

    1. It's possible. Davis was incredibly versatile. She was so good at a roles like this one that it's how she is remembered. It's easy to forget just how good she was in things like Now, Voyager where she could be so sympathetic and vulnerable.

      But no one--no one--bitched it up like Bette.