Friday, October 11, 2019

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actress 1942

The Contenders:

Greer Garson: Mrs. Miniver (winner)
Rosalind Russell: My Sister Eileen
Bette Davis: Now, Voyager
Teresa Wright: The Pride of the Yankees
Katharine Hepburn: Woman of the Year

What’s Missing

As with many of the earlier years of Oscar history, my viewing list is shorter than it should be. Knowing the Academy’s hatred of Orson Welles, it’s not a shock that Dolores Costello was overlooked for The Magnificent Ambersons. Even if she had been included, this is a fairly dismal set of nominees that could have easily been brightened up. Sure Simone Simon for Cat People is a stretch, but that’s not the case for Jean Arthur in The Talk of the Town. I’d have loved for this to be the year that Veronica Lake got a nod for I Married a Witch, but it was probably too fluffy. I’d love to suggest someone for Went the Day Well?, but it’s very much an ensemble. The real shame for the Academy is ignoring Carole Lombard in To Be or Not To Be. Really, Academy?

Weeding through the Nominees

5. I don’t want to speak ill of Teresa Wright nor of The Pride of the Yankees, which is a fine film. This is a case, though, where the performance in questions feels very much like it should have been seen more as supporting. Wright is important to the film, and critical in key scenes, but this is so much Gary Cooper’s movie that it’s difficult to see anyone but him—he even upstages a back-to-his-playing-weight Babe Ruth. This was unfair to Teresa Wright, good as she is. This is the wrong category for her.

4. It’s unfair of me to judge Rosalind Russell by My Sister Eileen, but I’m not sure how I avoid that. This was not a movie I enjoyed watching, although none of that is Russell’s fault. For what it’s worth, she’s the best part of the film. The problem is that the film itself is reprehensible in its sexual politics. There’s a weird stalker-y vibe to the whole thing; it fairly reeks of sexual assault in almost every frame. Roz Russell deserved a better vehicle than this and she deserved a better role for a nomination.

3. 1942 was around the time Katherine Hepburn was starting to get interesting with a lot of her roles, but Woman of the Year wasn’t all the way there yet. Once again, it’s the gender politics that are the biggest issue here, and while the film isn’t as egregious as it could be (it’s almost progressive for 1942), it’s still something that has aged very, very poorly. It’s notable as (as far as I know) the first Tracy/Hepburn vehicle, but it’s not a performance that does anything for me more than just appreciating it for what it is.

2. It’s not at all a shock that Greer Garson won for Mrs. Miniver. This is one of those times when the country needed a particular movie to win—the recent entry of the U.S. into the war made this the film of the day, and Garson is stellar in the title role. It’s an important film, and an important role. While not true in terms of the privation actually suffered in Britain in the war (it was far worse in reality), it rings true emotionally, and that’s all Garson. Truthfully, I don’t dislike her win, and I’d be happy to give Garson the statue in a lot of years. There’s one thing that keeps her off the dais for me.

My Choice

1. I’ve not been shy about the fact that I love Now, Voyager and that I love Bette Davis in it. It’s her best work in my opinion, and given the career that she had, that’s saying a hell of a lot. This could have so easily become drippy and maudlin and jumped head-first into melodrama. Instead, it’s nuanced and sweet and heartbreaking, and all of that comes directly from the strength of Davis in the role. Like I said above, I understand Greer Garson winning based on the timing, but in an objective sense, there’s no way anyone but Davis walks off with this statue.

Final Analysis


  1. Davis is awesome in Now Voyager, but for me both Jezebel and Baby Jane are Davis at her greatest. I would still grant her this win as Lombard was not nominated (?!) and Miniver did not really do it for me. Hepburn could have been a good winner too, but the morale of that movie is just ... horrible.

    1. I agree with a lot of what you're saying. For me, Now, Voyager is peak Bette because of how far that character moves from the start of the film to the end. That's all Bette, from the mouse to someone comfortable in her own skin, and I buy it at every stage.

  2. Ha! I knew as soon as I saw the subject line who your winner would be and it’s a very fine choice indeed.

    I agree about Teresa Wright being more supporting though she is key to Pride of the Yankees. She’s the audience surrogate displaying the emotions that Cooper’s stoicism holds back. She did win supporting actress for Mrs. Miniver but I would have rather seen her take it for this more varied performance. I’m sure it was a combined award for both.

    I love Roz Russell and she is always worth watching but why a nomination for this and not His Girl Friday or The Women?

    Yes Woman of the Year is the first Tracy/Hepburn pairing and their chemistry is right out there for all to see but the gender politics are hideously dated and the character of Tess Harding isn’t worthy of a nomination.

    That leaves Greer and Bette and either would have been a worthy winner but your point about the world situation at the time is surely a huge part of why Garson came out on top. Greer also had the megahit Random Harvest this year, where she is also very strong, and like Teresa Wright it helped her along. In addition she was Louis B. Mayer’s favorite at the time so he put all of MGM’s massive power behind her. So it would seem the dye was cast.

    Bette of course was Queen of the Warner lot but already had two Oscars so powerful though she was she didn’t stand a chance against the Garson juggernaut. But out of this line up she would have been my choice to win as well. It’s a brilliant piece of work.

    As for Carole Lombard’s omission I think there are a couple of things that played into that. Posthumous nominations are rare, I think at this point only Jeanne Eagels had received one in any of the acting categories, and though Lombard was beloved she was an independent actress with non-exclusive contracts at a couple of studios so there was no one great power to build up a push for her. Even more than that the film may be widely respected and admired now but that wasn’t the case at the time though her personal reviews were excellent. She should have been among the nominees in spite of all that.

    Outside of that major miss and the others you mentioned I’d add Lucille Ball for The Big Street and Ginger Rogers in The Major and the Minor (SO much better than the Kitty Foyle glugfest she won for) as being better choices than those bottom three.

    However as very fine as Bette is in Now, Voyager in an open field we would disagree on the winner. Davis would be my runner-up to Veronica Lake. I Married a Witch may be gossamer fluff but Veronica is totally captivating- sly, vulnerable and funny with an inner glow that radiates from the screen. Her time at the top was so brief, and this was her best year, it’s a shame she didn’t receive some acknowledgement of how good she could be.

    My ballot would have run this way and in this order of preference:

    Veronica Lake-I Married a Witch-Winner
    Bette Davis-Now, Voyager
    Carole Lombard-To Be or Not to Be
    Greer Garson-Mrs. Miniver
    Ginger Rogers-The Major and The Minor

    1. Having not seen The Major and the Minor, I can't really comment on it in terms of making my final five. I can say that the other four would be four of mine, and Veronica Lake would probably be second or third--she'd be difficult for me to place with Garson. My fifth might well be Dolores Costello.

      I also agree on Teresa Wright. Her importance to the film is exactly why I'd want her nominated for Pride of the Yankees in the supporting role. It's not the same movie without her, but it's absolutely Cooper's film.

  3. I would like to have seen Teresa Wright nominated for Mrs. Miniver instead. She's clearly supporting there as well. I could have I gone for either Davis or Garson for the win.

    1. I get Garson's win--and she's good and absolutely deserving of the nomination, but to my mind, this is Davis's win every single time.