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