Friday, March 16, 2018

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actress 1940

The Contenders:

Ginger Rogers: Kitty Foyle (winner)
Bette Davis: The Letter
Martha Scott: Our Town
Katharine Hepburn: The Philadelphia Story
Joan Fontaine: Rebecca

What’s Missing

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.

My Choice

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.

Final Analysis


  1. It's been a while since I saw The Letter but it's got one of those GREAT Old Hollywood openings that you just can't forget. I've thinking maybe I should watch it again because at this point, all I remember is the opening.

    The two Bette Davis movies that I watch over and over are Front-Page Woman and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

    You're so right about Rosalind Russell! I'm not sure I'd give her the win over Davis, but she should definitely be nominated.

    1. Honestly, the biggest problem with The Letter is that it doesn't live up to that opening. On the other hand, not much could.

  2. From what I’ve read Ginger Rogers was very surprised when she won this year and after watching Kitty Foyle so was I! She’s not terrible but considering the immense quantity of quality to choose from that an okay performance was awarded the prize is a bitter pill.

    Of these five I’d only consider two, Hepburn & Davis, even anywhere near worthy of a nomination in a field of ten and only Davis for the final five. So I’m in agreement with you on who should have won. Leslie Crosbie is a venal dragon hidden behind a placid exterior and Bette weighs her performance just right never letting too much of the poison show while making sure the audience knows it’s there.

    But this is one of the great years for female performance in film so this weak line up (in the context of what was available) is frustrating. I share in your mystification about how Roz Russell was shut out of a nomination, though I’d guess studio politics played a role-she was a Metro girl who made the film on loan out to Warners so she didn’t get the studio push. But I can’t understand what happened with Maggie Sullavan, both her films were MGM productions and she was under contract to them at the time. She’s excellent in The Mortal Storm but without question she should have been there for The Shop Around the Corner, however if even Frank Morgan couldn’t score a nomination in Supporting Actor for what should have been his winning performance than the Academy just wasn’t feeling the film.

    Aside from those two I’d say all of these ladies- Joan Crawford in Strange Cargo, Irene Dunne in My Favorite Wife, Norma Shearer in Escape, Ann Sheridan in Torrid Zone and Barbara Stanwyck in Remember the Night at least deserved to be there as much if not more than all but Davis. But the real slight and oversight is Vivien Leigh in Waterloo Bridge. Maybe because she had deservedly won the previous year it was felt that she had been rewarded but she’s just heartbreakingly great in the movie and while this would be one of the most difficult years to choose a winner in an open field for me it would be between Rosalind Russell and her for the win.

    1. When I say that I haven't seen a lot of movies from 1940, this is kind of what I mean--there are a lot of blank spots on my list. I can't judge, having not seen any of the films that you list at the end. I can say that Davis would edge Russell for me, but it would be a very tight race. Davis in The Letter and Jane Greer in Out of the Past are probably the two most perfect incarnations of a femme fatale that I know, with Stanwyck's turn in Double Indemnity coming in third.

    2. That does make it tough to judge but on the up side you have so many terrific movies to discover in the future!

      Out of all the films either made in their respective careers Waterloo Bridge was the favorite of both Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor which considering some of their others is quite a recommendation.

    3. It's one I really do need to get to. One of these days, right?

  3. If this had been Best picture we were talking then The Philadelphia Story would com out ahead of the The Letter, but as Best Actress Bette Davis owns this one. She completely star this movie like no other actress this year. In fact she usually did, but The Letter is a good enough movie that she should have gotten it.
    I agree that Russell should have received some recognition, but comedy was never the best way to the collective heart of the Academy.

    1. While comedy didn't always gain a lot of traction at the Academy, it certainly seemed more acceptable in the earlier years.

      Davis was always great. It's my stance that in The Letter, she helped define a style, and that's worth something.