Friday, April 27, 2018

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actress 1938

The Contenders:

Bette Davis: Jezebel (winner)
Norma Shearer: Marie Antoinette
Wendy Hiller: Pygmalion
Margaret Sullavan: Three Comrades
Fay Bainter: White Banners

What’s Missing

So when I look at the five nominations for Best Actress 1938, I see what appears to be a clear winner, clear second- and third-place finishers, and a couple of also-rans who barely belong here (or don’t at all). That’s harsh, but I think it’s accurate. So let’s do what we can to make this a more competitive Oscar race. A foreign film was far less likely to score a nomination for 1938, but Simone Simon might get some play for La Bete Humaine, even if she’s more a supporting player. The same is true of Olivia de Havilland and The Adventures of Robin Hood. Margaret Lockwood and The Lady Vanishes might be worth mentioning here. The biggest miss is Katherine Hepburn and Bringing up Baby, a film I like less than just about everyone else.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. In the race for the bottom of this race, the big winner (or loser) is Margaret Sullavan in Three Comrades. This is a bowl of room temperature treacle with one of the dumbest endings I’ve come across in ages. Sullavan isn’t bad in the film, but she’s also nothing particularly exceptional, and the movie itself is an absolute mess with an ending that defies just about anything rational. Sullavan’s nomination feels like one that is here to round us up to the required five. That’s not a knock on her; it’s a knock on a ridiculous film.

4. I like Fay Bainter, but I didn’t like White Banners that much. Bainter was a fine actress, normally in more supporting roles, and in fact won for Best Supporting Actress at this very Oscar ceremony for Jezebel. White Banners is only a step away from the full-on melodramatic syrup of Three Comrades and it’s not a full step. Bainter is a more engaging actress and her film features a better supporting cast (Claude Rains trumps Robert Young and Franchot Tone), but it’s still a weak entry.

3. Norma Shearer holds the distinction of being far better than her entry as well. Marie Antoinette has the benefit of being sumptuous and filled with fantastic sets and costumes. The film also benefits from a solid (and nominated) supporting role from Robert Morley. In fact, the biggest issues with the film aren’t Shearer’s fault; this should have been in color, and had it been, it would have been far better and done far more to advance Shearer’s case. Ultimately, I just like two other performances more.

2. I’m not a Wendy Hiller fan, but her turn in Pygmalion is my favorite version of Eliza Doolittle. I contend that in My Fair Lady, we all fall in love with Eliza a little because she’s played by Audrey Hepburn, so of course we do. In Pygmalion, we might not fall in love with Eliza, but we do end up liking her and, more importantly, respecting her. The difference there is all the difference, and it comes entirely from Hiller’s performance that ends up presenting us with an Eliza made of 50% backbone and 50% fire. In a lot of years, Hiller would be in serious contention for me.

My Choice

1. And then we have Bette Davis and her towering performance in Jezebel. What makes this a clear winner is that it’s a rare case where Oscar seemed to see the future. Bette Davis does not just give the best performance of the year; she gives one of the defining performances of her career. There could not have been another winner of the Oscar for 1938; Davis was too good in a role that ultimately suited her perfectly. Add whomever you’d like for this category and year, Davis is still going to come out on top. She was perfectly cast in a role that couldn't have been better for her. She's the natural winner.

Final Analysis


  1. A no-brainer, isn't it?
    Bette Davis would have won, as you say, any year on this performance.

    1. I think that's pretty close to true. She'd beat every 1938 performance for sure. There are perhaps a couple of others in other years I might pick over her, but this is such a great and defining role that there's no other place to go.

  2. The Academy did pretty well this year in comparison to some years with three out of five who truly belong here.

    I’m glad this nomination brought the great Fay Bainter a little immortality as the first actress to score both a lead and supporting nomination in the same year but the lead role didn’t cut the mustard for her to be in this line-up. But if it guaranteed her the win in supporting which she very much deserved I guess it wasn’t too much of a waste of a slot. She’s as capable as she ever was but the film is just so much melodrama.

    I adore Maggie Sullavan and she makes as much as she can out of the gloopy inanity of Three Comrades but it’s not at The Shop Around the Corner or Mortal Storm level.

    I’m in and out on Norma Shearer. In my opinion she improved as she got closer to the end of her career when she tamped down the theatricality-it never went away but the hand to forehead excess diminished-and her style is very much suited to Marie Antoinette. Along with 1940’s Escape I think it’s her best onscreen work. I agree the film cries out for color-if Thalberg had been alive when production started I’m sure it would have been but he died in the planning stage and Mayer was not as pampering to the Widow Thalberg. But either way she definitely deserved the nomination-her whole performance is terrific but her final scene really seals the deal.

    I’m surprised to hear you’re not a Wendy Hiller fan, I think she was a superior actress but we all have our likes and dislikes. Be that as it may I’m in agreement on her Eliza being the best take on the character. She’s wonderfully tough and even after her transformation manages to retain some of her original grit, something missing in Audrey Hepburn's My Fair Lady Eliza. Audrey’s grace was innate and though she tries there’s nothing of the guttersnipe about her ever. Another solid nomination.

    But out of the line-up Bette is the winner in a walk. Jezebel isn’t a favorite Davis film of mine the way Dark Victory or Watch on the Rhine are but she owns the film. As with her best work she’s unafraid to be a termagant or expose her insecurity. In an open field she wouldn’t be my winner but she’d be an awfully close second.

    There was a lot of good work this year but I think there were only a couple of other really worthy performances that could have been considered to replace the bottom two.

    I’d agree that while she was magnificent in La Bete Humaine Signoret was supporting. I would have much rather seen her there than Miliza Korjus in The Great Waltz though Fay Bainter would still come out on top.

    With her out there’s Ingrid Bergman in the original Swedish version of A Woman’s Face though I’d put her in sixth place. The two strongest contenders are Vivien Leigh as the street performer turned star in the Sidewalks of London and Katharine Hepburn as the restless rich girl in Holiday. I think Hepburn is delightful in Bringing Up Baby showing a side of her talent that didn’t often get utilized which I think is why the performance is so venerated. That’s all well and good but while I wouldn’t say the performance is one-note it doesn’t provide for much shading. Her work in Holiday on the other hand is full of variation and color, it’s my favorite of all her work-I think she was nominated and awarded for all the wrong performances except for The Lion in Winter-and had she been nominated she would be my choice.

    1. Considering the track record of some years, three out of five isn't bad. I agree on Bainter here. She makes the best of a very treacley screenplay and manages to go toe-to-toe with Claude Rains, which is pretty damn comendable. The story is just laden with drippiness, though, and that's a serious issue. In fact, the only thing that prevents it from being the most over-the-top melodrama nominated is the nomination of Three Comrades, which is pure, uncut syrup. That she does what she can is admirable, but that ending is a solid, stupid mess.

      My problem with Wendy Hiller almost certainly stems from the fact that the first thing I saw her in was I Know Where I'm Going!, a film I disliked intensely, and one that plays very much on the strength of her character--she's front and center in a film I dislike and I've never been able to shake that. Pygmalion is the film where I started to change my opinion on her because she's such a force in it. She lacks the charm of Audrey Hepburn, but then again, who doesn't? But she is in many ways more admirable, and that's important.

      I don't know the Hepburn film you mention at the end, so I'll see if I can find it. It would have to be a hell of a performance to move me on Bette, though.

    2. I'm probably in the minority on preferring Kate over Bette in this instance but as I said it's very close even for me between them.

      Holiday is the last film she made at the end of box office poison period before she departed for the East and The Philadelphia Story on stage. She had already cut ties with RKO and it was a one off for Columbia when George Cukor insisted on her for Linda Seton. It's her third co-starring venture with Cary Grant-who is also wonderful-and the film contains some of Lew Ayres best work as well as her alcoholic brother Ned.

      TCM programs it pretty regularly and its on DVD so it should be relatively easy to track down.

    3. Fair enough. I'll keep an eye out for it.