Ginger Rogers: Kitty Foyle (winner)
Bette Davis: The Letter
Martha Scott: Our Town
Katharine Hepburn: The Philadelphia Story
Joan Fontaine: Rebecca
In truth, I probably haven’t seen enough movies from 1940 to really address all of the actresses who could deserve a nomination. There are a few, though, that I think are worth bringing up and who I think legitimately could stand on this playing field. Maureen O’Hara in Dance, Girl, Dance is probably outside of that group by about a step. I like her performance, though, and think it’s entirely possible that she was ignored because no one really took a movie created by a woman director that seriously in 1940. Margaret Sullavan had a great 1940, starring in both The Mortal Storm and especially The Shop around the Corner, both with James Stewart (who had a tremendously good 1940). The real question for me is how Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday was overlooked. I’ll never understand how she wasn’t nominated.
Weeding through the Nominees
5. Rebecca is a fine movie and Joan Fontaine was a fine actress, but of the five nominees, she’s the one I would remove. I think she was nominated because Rebecca itself was such a hit; it won Best Picture, after all. The problem I have with Fontaine’s nomination is that she can’t hold the screen when she’s there with Judith Anderson, who is absolutely the driving force of everything that happens on screen. This is Anderson’s film, not Fontaine’s, and that always makes me question a nomination.
4. In my head, I flipped my fourth and third place winners a couple of dozen times before finally coming down on placing Martha Scott in Our Town here. The reason for that is that Scott, while excellent in the third act of the film, is entirely forgettable in the first two. I didn’t understand her nomination at all until she becomes ill toward the end of the film. Sure, that part of the film and her performance are very good. But it’s so notable because the first half is so milquetoast. It feels inconsistent.
3. Kitty Foyle was daring for its time even if it’s incredibly tame for the modern age. What’s going for Ginger Rogers here is that she’s Ginger Rogers. It’s easy to like her when she’s on screen. The screenplay is designed to make us feel compassion for her and the situation she finds herself in, and since we already like her, it’s easy to have her be entirely sympathetic. It’s a nice role and ultimately a nice movie and what Rogers has over Martha Scott is that she is consistent in the role from start to finish. There are simply two better nominated performances from this year.
2. I don’t love a lot of Katharine Hepburn’s early roles because she seemed so terribly over-earnest in everything she did. So much of her early roles got a great deal of acclaim, but come across to me like a talented but unpolished kid shouting to reach the back of theater. With The Philadelphia Story, Hepburn seems to have grown up a great deal from those early roles. I like her in this, and one of the reasons I like her is that The Philadelphia Story specifically takes her high-and-mighty character/self down a peg. This movie makes her human, and she’s so much better that way.
1. My winner is Bette Davis in The Letter. This isn’t my favorite Bette Davis performance nor my favorite of her movies, but it is one of the purest and most clear examples of a femme fatale in film history. Davis is purely evil in this film and completely unrepentant of that evil. She is nasty and awful, and yet is still Bette Davis, and thus fascinating constantly. If we nominated Rosalind Russell and Margaret Sullavan, there’d be a tighter race here. While I liked those performances, I didn’t see anything in Russell or Sullavan that would make Davis any less the template for a film noir dame.