Thursday, May 23, 2024

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Oscar 1940: Best Actress

My goodness, back in 1940, Best Actress and Best Picture were really linked! This was and is a rarity - let's not forget, the Best Actress race for 2021 had zero women in Best Picture nominees, so 5/5 is insane. Unheard of. Even 1939 and 1941 were both just shy at 4/5, but for this one year, what made five of the Best Pictures of the Year work were the lead female performances at the center.

Those performances? Two veterans (Davis & Hepburn). Two reprising their Broadway hits (Hepburn & Scott). One getting the Selznick ingenue treatment (Fontaine). But only one winner. Yes, even though it wasn't for the movies that made her famous (and still remain her best-known), Ginger Rogers, star of Top Hat and Swing Time, would forever be an Oscar winner.

These were those performances:

Bette Davis as Leslie Crosbie
The Letter
past two-time winner, fourth of ten official nominations

Bette Davis's talents as a performer can often be taken for granted; she's a natural, instinctive performer who meets the material, I feel like every other movie one watches of hers, one thinks, "She was never better!" The Letter is among those. She does a lot of reacting through the first half of the movie, but while most films make "reacting" a silent physical thing, The Letter lets Davis exercise her forte: verbal reactions. Adjusting her story for the listener, sure, that's writer stuff, that's tailor-made; adjusting tone, however, fluctuating between flirtatious, childish, confused, offended, definite, righteous - that's Davis. Is she a cold-blooded killer or a woman wronged? She keeps us guessing even without contradicting her character. When she plays her final scenes, there's not just a lump in this viewer's throat, there's a cold sweat that breaks out. How can one say that? How can one do that? How can one accept what comes after? She's wonderful.

Joan Fontaine as The Second Mrs. De Winter
first of three nominations; National Board of Review honoree for Best Acting; NYFCC Awards runner-up for Best Actress

Another actress in danger of being underestimated is Fontaine - underestimated by me. But it's not her fault her unnamed heroine is such a glass of milk, that's the character, and she nails it! The innocence, the over-accommodation, the reluctance to speak out of turn - whether with Mrs. Van Hooper, Maxim, her own servants, or even strangers who really do not have a right to enter her home (looking at you, George Sanders as Jack Favell!) - Fontaine's eyes and posture give us the story, this could be a silent picture and we'd know what she's conveying. Her absence is missed in the overlong post-inquest sequence, revealing that, not just the story, but Fontaine herself is the key to what makes this movie work as well as it does.

Katharine Hepburn as Tracy Lord
The Philadelphia Story
past winner, third of twelve nominations; NYFCC Award winner for Best Actress

Philip Barry wrote the original play for Hepburn, so it's no wonder that it plays to many of her strengths. Does that make this a too-easy slamdunk performance? Maybe, but it's neither Barry's nor Hepburn's faults that she's such a dynamite actress. A tip o' the hat to the writing for allowing Tracy such an arc, but Hepburn really sells the story of a woman who is unsettled by a weekend and...doesn't completely change, but rather, admits mistakes and errors and adjusts herself to a new reality. Mind, if one is to believe that all these men kowtow to Tracy so immediately and completely - father, fiance, ex-husband, reporter - one needs a Hepburn to sell that charm. It's not that she's promising sex, and it's not that she's some Fontaine-ish dream of a housewife, it is simply a genuine magnetism, a joie de vivre that manages to be both spirited yet absolutely proper that only Hepburn can harness. It's no wonder this play is never revived, who could ever measure up?

Ginger Rogers as Kitty Foyle
Kitty Foyle
only nomination; National Board of Review honoree for Best Acting [1941, for some reason]

I'm not going to argue that Rogers only won for Kitty Foyle because her lead performance in Primrose Path was too controversial. But I will say, the two taken in tandem, especially if you chiefly know her for her excellent turns in her musicals with Astaire and her what-a-gas performance in Gold Diggers in 1933, make a terrific argument for her win. In both, she must play a gal from teen to early-20s (she's almost 30); both take advantage of her skill with rapier repartee while also revealing dramatic depths hitherto unexplored. Actually, it's funny that Kitty Foyle, her winning performance is considered less controversial: here, she social climbs, gets knocked up by a married man, takes an unhealthy maternal interest in her lover's wife's child, and still earns the title of Flawed But Noble Heroine.

Martha Scott as Emily Webb
Our Town
only nomination; National Board of Review honoree for Best Acting; NYFCC Awards runner-up for Best Actress

I bet she's great on stage!


Rogers, playing against type, up against two winners, a debut, and Joan Fontaine, understandably won. My pick?:


Tomorrow, we finish official Oscars coverage with Best Director: George Cukor (The Philadelphia Story), John Ford (The Grapes of Wrath), Alfred Hitchcock (Rebecca), Sam Wood (Kitty Foyle), and William Wyler (The Letter).

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