Wednesday, August 10, 2022

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1936: Supporting Actress

Yesterday, we discussed - briefly - the origins of the supporting categories. Today, we discuss the greatest thing to come out of that process: the Best Supporting Actress category. Blogs have been dedicated to it, hours of online debate have been spent on it, great careers have been honored in it. It is, in my opinion, the best category at the Oscars.

Just as its male counterpart established its habit of honoring industry veterans with long CVs, the first Best Supporting Actress race established its traditional mix of old hands, newcomers, youths, and matriarchs. Broadway vet Beulah Bondi had been in films since reprising her stage role for the 1931 screen adaptation of Street Scene; frankly, I wouldn't be surprised if that performance also added to the formation of this category and her being among its first honorees. Alice Brady started in films in 1915, took a ten-year break to focus on stage work (during which she originated the lead role of Lavinia in Mourning Becomes Electra), and came back to play moms in 1933. Future Nancy Drew star Bonita Granville was a child star, making her debut at age 10 in 1932's Westward Passage. The two first-timers were hardly newbies. Sixty-year-old Maria Ouspenskaya was an experienced stage performer and acting teacher who brought the Stanislavski Method to the United States, while 36-year-old Gale Sondergaard had been on Broadway since 1928. Anthony Adverse was her movie debut, clearly an auspicious one: she became the first Best Supporting Actress winner.

Deservedly so? That's what we're here to discuss:

Beulah Bondi as Rachel Jackson
The Gorgeous Hussy
first of two nominations

The role: The wife of Andrew Jackson, a woman ridiculed by the D.C. elite for her humble background, a mother figure to the titular hussy. Film also nominated for Best Cinematography.

The performance: The Gorgeous Hussy (pleasantly dull, somewhat anemic) follows Peggy O'Neill, daughter of an innkeeper whose establishment is frequented by officers, politicians, and other influential D.C. men. The film portrays her as a ward to Andrew Jackson before and during his Presidency, with Rachel acting as confidant and mother to her. Bondi is best in show. Alongside scene partner Lionel Barrymore, she shows us a marriage built on both love and mutual respect. The dignity with which she imbues Rachel's pain at hearing the cracks about her upbringing is moving. When she leaves the film, we miss her. Indeed, it almost seems like the filmmakers wanted to do a biopic of the Jacksons but had to make this instead. With Bondi's performance, you get why they'd want to.

Alice Brady as Angelica Bullock
My Man Godfrey
first of two nominations

The role: The kooky matriarch of an eccentric Park Avenue family. Film also nominated for Screenplay, Supporting Actor, Actor, Actress, and Director.

The performance: I love Alice Brady, as was apparent with the 1935 retrospective. She's great fun here, back in the role of daffy grande dame, with enough adjustment to make it distinct from other times she's assayed such a part. A lot of fun to watch, and as broad as it is, she still believably presents a woman who cannot conceive, despite repeated evidence otherwise, of a world that doesn't go the way she'd prefer it to.

Bonita Granville as Mary Tilford
These Three
first and only nomination

The role: A manipulative bully who starts a lie about her teachers' sex lives and is unrepentant when it gets out of control.

The performance: She knows this character enough to show a moment's panic, quick assessment, eventual deflection. A masterful portrayal of petty malevolence: watch as she changes approach several times within a scene, looking for anything in her favor, even showing how far she has to convince herself that her lies are truths, even if just to convince others in the moment. To see those brief instances of guilt washed away by self-preservation, the perverse delight she takes in executing a master deception...what a horror! What a performance!

Maria Ouspenskaya as Baroness Von Obersdorf
first of two nominations

The role: An impoverished aristocrat summoned by her son to meet his girlfriend: a middle-aged woman separated but not yet divorced from her husband of 20 years. Film also nominated for Sound Recording, Art Direction (won), Screenplay, Actor, Director, and Best Picture.

The performance: Just three seconds shy of five minutes on screen, and she commands every moment of her scene. I don't think she's the Best Supporting Actress even just in the movie, but yeah, it's reasonable to be impressed by what she accomplishes. Brutally honest, she simply and effectively lays waste to any hope Mrs. Dodsworth has of a future outside her current marriage. 

Gale Sondergaard as Faith Paleologus
Anthony Adverse
first of two nominations

The role: Faith Paleologus, housekeeper to old Bonnyfeather (grandfather of Anthony Adverse), who schemes her way to a beneficial marriage and to Anthony's rightful fortune. A villain! Film also nominated for Assistant Director, Editing (won), Art Direction, Cinematography (won), Score (won), and Best Picture.

The performance: Her performance had me convinced for the longest time that the film was a comedy parodying the historical drama. The rest of the film convinced me such was not the case. She plays devious with a capital D, so obvious in her treachery there's no way any of the people she hoodwinks could be fooled for a second, let alone decades. She falls into every trap that Granville avoids. Of the twenty performances nominated across all four categories, this is the worst.


I don't know how the first winner in this category's history is also one of its worst, but it is frustrating. Especially since there's a similar villain role right there! My pick:


Tomorrow, the nominees for Best Actor: Gary Cooper (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town), Walter Huston (Dodsworth), Paul Muni (The Story of Louis Pasteur), William Powell (My Man Godfrey), and Spencer Tracy (San Francisco).

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