Katharine Hepburn: Alice Adams
Miriam Hopkins: Becky Sharp
Bette Davis: Dangerous (winner)
Merle Oberon: The Dark Angel
Elisabeth Bergner: Escape Me Never
Claudette Colbert: Private Worlds
This might be a first—I don’t really like any of the movies that are nominated here. That may or may not reflect on the performances of the lead actresses, though. There are a few I’d strongly consider adding, and even though most of these are from fluffy films without much substance, I like the performances in them. We can start with Ginger Rogers in Top Hat and Jeanette MacDonald in Naughty Marietta, a film I like despite MacDonal’s operatic musical stylings. The best musical performance of the year came from Eleanor Powell in The Broadway Melody of 1936. Beyond those three, I might want to talk about Barbara Stanwyck in Annie Oakley, but my bias for her is well-known.
Weeding through the Nominees
6. I said above that I don’t like any of these films, but there are a couple that I genuinely hate. We can start that list with Becky Sharp, which has exactly one interesting thing about it and everything else is terrible, including our nominee, . This is the first film ever made with the three-strip Techicolor process. There’s not a single other reason to consider it interesting or important. This is nothing more than a historical footnote, worth watching only if you are a completist of early film history. Other than that? You’re okay without it.
5. Katharine Hepburn eventually became one of the most respected actors of her time and had a career that spanned decades. With Alice Adams, I wondered how she had a career at all. In this move, she plays an awful person who gets rewarded for being an awful person. No one in their right mind would want Alice to get anything she wants. She’s dismissive and rude, arrogant, demanding, and social climbing. The movie stinks, too, but it mainly stinks because Hepburn’s character is terrible and she overplays the rule.
4. I don’t particularly dislike Merle Oberon, but The Dark Angel was one of those films that felt like little more than a check in a box for me. I don’t have a lot of memory of it, a fact that normally gets a film or a performance put into last place. So why did this reach all the way up to fourth place over two other movies? Simple—those two other movies actively bothered me, and evidently, The Dark Angel only annoyed me without managing to piss me off. I still don’t like it, but that’s better than active hate.
3. Is it unfair of my to put Claudette Colbert and Private Worlds in third place because I’m not much of a fan of Colbert? I think she could have been an engaging actress in a lot of cases, but I think she ended up frequently miscast in roles that set her up as being the end-all, be-all of womanhood, a role she could never really fulfill. The film is another that feels like a check in a box. I don’t remember a great deal of it, and that doesn’t say a lot for the film nor for the performance of Claudette Colbert.
2. I don’t know a great deal about Elisabeth Bergner, nor do I know a great deal about Escape Me Never despite having seen it. I think it would be a movie worth restoring, though. I remember feeling pretty noncommittal on this film, but I think that might change a little with a quality restoration. She had real talent, and while this movie doesn’t really allow her to fully explore that talent, it at least gave her a start. For that, it’s a film that is worth being remembered, if only for her.
1. And so this leaves us with Bette Davis and Dangerous, the actual winner of this Oscar, in first place. If I put myself in the mindset of the people in the year this came out, I can almost see Davis winning (and based on the competition, I see that clearly). My problem is looking at this from a modern perspective, it’s so clear that Davis had so many great roles in her career to look forward to, and that if you listed out her great performances, Dangerous probably wouldn’t make the top ten.
So who wins? Take your pick from my first paragraph. Yes, any of them. If you need me to pick, I’ll go with Eleanor Powell, arguably the greatest dancer ever on film. Yes, of either gender.