Friday, July 7, 2017

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actress 1946

The Contenders:

Celia Johnson: Brief Encounter
Jennifer Jones: Duel in the Sun
Rosalind Russell: Sister Kenny
Oliva de Havilland: To Each His Own (winner)
Jane Wyman: The Yearling

What’s Missing

At first blush, 1946 is another year where one has to wonder at least a little bit what the Academy might have been thinking when it comes to the nominations. Of course I’m going to mention Barbara Stanwyck here, in this case for The Strange Loves of Martha Ivers. I’ll also add Dorothy McGuire for The Spiral Staircase. More to the point, Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice and Ava Gardner in The Killers feel like they could have gotten nominations. I like Kim Hunter in A Matter of Life and Death, too. The biggest miss for me, though, is the incomparable Rita Hayworth in Gilda, who genuinely should be here.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. I generally like Jane Wyman, and I don’t think her performance in The Yearling is a bad one. I’m putting her fifth for a very specific reason: she doesn’t belong nominated for Best Actress. At best, her performance is a supporting one. She has some very good scenes and I like her in the role; it’s simply not a big enough role to warrant her being nominated for this award. Oscar does this now and then. The truth is that I like this performance more than at least one of the other nominations. It’s simply the least deserving because she’s nominated for the wrong award.

4. Based on what I’ve said in the past, it’s not a shock that I’m dropping Jennifer Jones early as well. This is absolutely my least favorite of the nominated performances, although it is at least a leading role. I’ve always found that Jones was a wooden actress. She’s beautiful to look at and the magic vanishes the moment she moves or opens her mouth. That’s the case in pretty much everything I’ve seen her in, and it’s absolutely the case in Duel in the Sun, which isn’t even that good of a movie. Rita Hayworth should be here instead, and were she here, she wouldn’t be in fourth.

3. Rosalind Russell is very good in Sister Kenny, and of the nominations we have, this is the first one that I think is genuinely warranted. My problem here is less with Russell than it is with the film as a whole. Russell is good here. In fact, she’s very good, but I can’t help but think that she’s at least slightly miscast in this film. Still, Russell’s work in the film is absolutely good enough for her to be named, but not good enough for her to move above this position. In an open field, I’d probably still nominate her, but she’d probably be in last place.

2. I find Olivia de Havilland’s career absolutely fascinating. In the majority of her Oscar nominations, she plays a role like she does in To Each His Own, where she tones down the glamour she was capable of playing and instead opts for a meaty role that focuses on the character instead. I get precisely why she won, and I can’t really fault the Academy completely for giving her the statue. It’s a great role and she’s great in it. She’s just not my favorite performance from 1946. A great nomination, but not the right winner.

My Choice

1. My winner, even in an open field, is Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter. This is such a fragile little movie, the kind of film that could be tipped into maudlin melodrama with a slight nudge. It never gets there, and a lot of the reason for that is the very careful and beautiful work of Celia Johnson. It makes what, in lesser hands, would be drippy and syrupy into something that is wonderful, tragic, and tender. It’s a career performance, and one that holds up and has held up for 70 years. She was the right choice, and she’s who should have won.

Final Analysis


  1. Another option would have been Deborah Kerr in Black Narcissus, but I concur, Celia Johnson was outstanding, especially with her acting when the narration was rolling. She was very expressive with restrain and economy.

    1. While I agree, Black Narcissus is typically considered a 1947 release. In fact, she was my choice for Best Actress 1947.

  2. I agree, you can't fault de Havilland’s win, but Johnson would be my pick as well. Such a special performance.

    1. Yeah, I get why de Havilland won. She just isn't my winner, although her performance is a good one and a great nomination.

  3. Along with 1950 this is one of the strongest years that the Best Actress category ever saw so some of these nominations just blow the mind.

    Knowing my utter distaste for her I’m certain that it’s no shock that I’d put Jennifer Jones dead last for her bargain basement vamping embarrassment of a performance in Duel in the Sun. She stinks.

    I wasn’t overly fond of The Yearling nor Jane Wyman’s performance in it. She was good as always but in a year with this many contenders for a slot she shouldn’t be here, and you’re right it is more of a supporting role.

    I love Roz Russell and think her work in Sister Kenny is solid and well observed, she obviously felt passionately about it, but she wouldn’t make my short list, my long one yes but not a finalist.

    I can’t really fault Olivia de Havilland’s win and am actually a little shocked that she emerged victorious this soon after her epic battle with Warner’s that broke the back of the star system. She takes a stock role and really makes something special of it and she’s the first of these five that I’d say belongs in her slot but within the parameters of these five she just wouldn’t come higher than second.

    That’s because Celia Johnson is untouchable in Brief Encounter. There’s only one actress who would even give me pause before I handed her the award and she didn’t even snag a nomination.

    As to who is missing this year there are a slew of notable performances worthy of consideration and a trio that belong in contention over the others. I wasn’t crazy about A Matter of Life and Death or Kim Hunter in the film but your other suggestions are all worthy considerations and I love that you mention Dorothy McGuire in The Spiral Staircase, a terrific suspenser-if a bit leaky in parts-and she drives it with a powerful performance aided by Ethel Barrymore.

    I think Ava Gardner is terrific in The Killers but I think it’s more of a supporting performance. Speaking of which someone else who did stellar work this year but whose role really is supporting despite her billing is Joan Crawford in Humoresque. To me it’s the best performance of her career, deep and complicated but unacknowledged.

    Aside from those you mentioned I’d add these: Arletty in Children of Paradise (a ’45 film but it hit American shores in ’46), Laraine Day in The Locket, Deborah Kerr in I See a Dark Stranger, Barbara Stanwyck is sensational in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers but she was equally good and radically different in My Reputation (which was the actress’s favorite of her own films) and Gene Tierney in The Razor's Edge.

    But the two beside McGuire who would replace those other actresses are Susan Hayward who is fantastic in the underrated noir Deadline at Dawn and the woman who would be the only real competition to Celia Johnson, Ingrid Bergman in Notorious. Such a complex performance, I go back and forth over who I think would come out on top….today it’s Celia but I could easily be swayed into Ingrid’s camp she’s just so damn great. If I had my way the category would have run this way.

    Ingrid Bergman-Notorious
    Olivia de Havilland-To Each His Own
    Susan Hayward-Deadline at Dawn
    Celia Johnson-Brief Encounter-Winner
    Dorothy McGuire-The Spiral Staircase

    Rita Hayworth would be battling it out for that sixth spot with Lana Turner & Barbara Stanwyck. Great year, tough choices!

    1. I thought about Notorious and honestly, it's probably a film I should watch again. I remember liking it...and that's really about it.

      I would put Rita Hayworth in the top five because it's such an iconic performance and she's magnetic in every frame she's in. She nails that character introduction in what is probably the sexiest three seconds of the 1940s and manages to live up to it for the rest of her performance.

      I agree that Ava Gardner's turn in The Killers is more supporting, but since I'm not a huge Gardner fan and since she's so damn good in it, I thought it was worth mentioning.

      I also considered adding Arletty in the first paragraph, but for me, Children of Paradise is about the incredible production and the story behind the film more than the film itself. That's probably a shortcoming on my part.

    2. I love Ava Gardner but have to admit that most of what she was handed was not challenging work relying mostly on her amazing beauty and raw sexuality to put it over and later when she could have been doing interesting character work she'd more or less given up and admitted she only worked for "the loot" mostly in pictures unworthy or her. Most disappointingly she blew her audition for Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate for which she would have been perfect (though Anne Bancroft is brilliant) by showing up drunk.

      But on the occasions when she was handed something worthwhile and she connected with the part, The Killers, Julie in Show Boat, Night of the Iguana and a few others, she could be extraordinarily good and in the case of the latter two deeply touching.

    3. I guess that might be my problem with Gardner--her roles were rarely the sort of thing to cause any interest for me, so I attributed that more to her than anything else. Roles like The Killers show that she was more than just the sizzle.

      Jennifer Jones, of course, wasn't even the sizzle. She was just the picture of the sizzle.

    4. Ha! How true...not even sizzlean!