Friday, December 6, 2019

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actress 1948

The Contenders:

Irene Dunne: I Remember Mama
Ingrid Bergman: Joan of Arc
Jane Wyman: Johnny Belinda (winner)
Olivia de Havilland: The Snake Pit
Barbara Stanwyck: Sorry, Wrong Number

What’s Missing

With some earlier years, I don’t have a large enough stock of movies I have watched to make a lot of suggestions. It’s at times like these that I have to depend on the comments for some additional ideas. Many of the movies I like from 1948 have substantially male casts. Eileen Herlie, who was Queen Gertrude in Hamlet would be an interesting choice. Another interesting possibility is Moira Shearer from The Red Shoes. I might also think about Maureen O’Hara from Sitting Pretty, although that movie truly belongs to Clifton Webb.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. I don’t dislike Ingrid Bergman, but I didn’t like Joan of Arc very much. Honestly, every screen depiction of St. Joan has faltered after Maria Falconetti’s turn in The Passion of Joan of Arc. Much of the film feels like it’s just going through the motions and doesn’t really have much of its heart into it. Bergman does her best with it, but it’s hard to make fat guys in priest robes yelling at her very compelling.

4. I could say much the same about Irene Dunne and I Remember Mama. This is an episodic tale that follows a year in the life of a family, moving from event to event, with everything more or less centered on the titular mama, played by Dunne. It’s a very sentimental film, and it very quickly and happily slides from sentimentality into almost pure glurge that is almost as viscous as molasses. Dunne does what she can with it, and it’s not her fault this is a gloopy mess, but gloopy mess it is.

3. The biggest problems with Johnny Belinda are not the fault of Jane Wyman, who puts in a much more than game effort here, playing a woman who can’t speak. That’s rather remarkable for the age, and Wyman does a great deal of emoting with her face and other expressions, and I won’t say that the nomination was a bad one. In fact, I fully understand why she won in 1948. She wouldn’t be my choice, but I think it’s a well-deserved nomination. And, I admit I’m probably penalizing her for the movie having some large plot problems.

2. Look, Barbara Stanwyck is in our list of nominations, so the only question is going to be how high I end up putting her. I’ve never been shy of my love for Stanwyck, and her role in Sorry, Wrong Number is exactly the sort of her roles that I love best. I’ll watch her in anything, but I especially love her when she’s a little bit (or more) unsavory, and that’s absolutely who she is here. This is a devilish film, and Stanwyck is at her best. She’s been as good as she is in this film, but I don’t know that she’s ever been a lot better.

My Choice

1. Olivia de Havilland made some really interesting choices in her career, and I don’t know that any were more interesting than taking the lead role in The Snake Pit. Many of her role choices were of the sort that placed her in a very non-glamorous light (like The Heiress), and that’s clearly the case here. She is brilliant in the role, and it’s not an easy one. The biggest problem the film has—the too fast an unsatisfying conclusion—are absolutely not her fault. While Wyman’s win is understandable and Stanwyck could be argued for a win, de Havilland is my choice in a walk.

Final Analysis


  1. I'd agree that the three out of five that you put at the top are worthy of their nods and the other two aren't.

    Joan of Arc is done in by its turgid pace, overly reverential tone and the fact that no matter how good an actress Ingrid was at 35 she was decades too old for Joan. She'd played the role to great acclaim on stage before this and I'm sure the distance of the proscenium made the disparity of the years much less, film offers no such help.

    I know people who just love I Remember Mama but I am not one of them. I found it insufferable and Dunne studied and precious.

    I would have been happy to see any of the other three women win though, and Jane Wyman gave one of my favorite, and most succinct, acceptance speeches ever. All are very strong in their own individual ways.

    But there was room for improvement and if Dunne and Bergman had been cut it would have been a very different race.

    How Moira Shearer didn't get in is something I'll never understand. She wouldn't be my choice to win but she is extraordinary in The Red Shoes.

    The bewitching Glynis Johns was enchanting as the mermaid who decides to see what the land is like and causes no end of trouble in "Miranda".

    But the real miss for me is Joan Fontaine's intricate work in Letter from an Unknown Woman. She's an actress who doesn't always impress me but she really inhabits the character of Lisa with director Max Ophuls's assistance. In an open field she's be my winner.

    1. I considered Joan Fontaine for about half a second as a possibility here until I remembered just how much I disliked Letter from an Unknown Woman. I disliked the characters and I disliked the film's overall message. Once I remembered that, there was no chance I'd want Fontaine in the nominations.

  2. I seem to say this every few months, but it's worth the repeat. These posts are not a celebration of Oscar, but a reckoning.

  3. Olivia de Havilland is the obvious winner this year. I cannot think of anybody else, not even Moira Shearer.