Thursday, June 20, 2024

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Oscars 1941: Best Actress

Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine were sisters. They were also rivals. Things didn't get as bad as Cain and Abel, but they were notoriously prickly about each other, and by the time De Havilland won her first Oscar for 1946's To Each His Own, they were barely on speaking terms. Fontaine frequently blamed jealousy, especially since the two were nominated against each other in 1941, each for their second nomination...and Joan won:

Apparently, Olivia was less offended by that and more offended by an insulting (but pretty funny) remark Fontaine made about her sister's new husband ("He's had four wives and written one book. Too bad it isn't the other way around."). And one doubts Olivia could have been too shocked by her sister winning: Joan had just starred in the previous year's Best Picture winner and she had won the New York Film Critics' Circle prize. 

But then, who knows? Maybe De Havilland was rooting for Bette Davis or even someone else. It is, after all, a lineup full of rich performances:

Bette Davis as Regina Giddens
The Little Foxes
past two-time winner, fifth of ten official nominations; National Board of Review's Best Acting of 1941

Though I know Davis never felt right about it (she was self-conscious, I guess, after seeing Talulah Bankhead's performance on Broadway), I think she's marvelous. She's no monster, not at first: she is suffocating, the look on her face when she's speaking with the man from Chicago whose bsuiness could change her fortunes isn't just lust or a financial calculation, it's the look of a woman who sees an opening through which she can finally breathe. That she winds up cutting off everyone around her to do so is her tragedy, the final closeup of which Bette Davis nails.

Olivia de Havilland as Emmy Brown
Hold Back the Dawn
second of five nominations; NYFCC Awards runner-up for Best Actress

She's just a genuine, kind woman who falls in love, unexpectedly but sincerely, with a man who is not worthy of her. She's not a stupid woman, but perhaps she's a little naive. Maybe it's her warm voice, maybe it's her uncanny ability to register sincere joy and disbelief on her face, but De Havilland makes Emmy - who could have been a real sap - into a lovely, loveable human being, determined to be good and do good.

Joan Fontaine as Linda McLaidlaw
second of three nominations; NYFCC Awards winner for Best Actress; National Board of Review's Best Acting of 1941

A great portrayal of someone who didn't know they had a problem (spinster!) immediately finding a solution and determined not to regret the decision. Paranoia and fear, she's already proved she could that, but her willingness to walk into danger despite all the alarms ringing, that's a different kind of thing. She's not resigned to what her fate might be, of course - the desperate contortion of her body in the car is the act of one who still wants to live - but there's stubbornness mixed with that "it can't be true" shock.

Greer Garson as Edna Gladney
Blossoms in the Dust
second of seven nominations

Well, she's great! Like I said when discussing Best Picture, she plays "a woman, not a saint, one with a strong personality and not always the best judgment[:] financially, politically (she is not one to coo or convince, but to show idiots the door), or even for herself - the line between fostering and parenting is blurred a few times, and Gladney must make tough decisions to ensure what's best for the child, not her feelings." I repeat all that because it's Garson who makes all that work. She is in every scene, present throughout: physically, emotionally, as a scene partner, and as a star.

Barbara Stanwyck as Sugarpuss O'Shea
Ball of Fire
second of four nominations

She's vivacious! She's funny! She's hot! Here's a classic archetype, the bad girl gone good, a nightclub singer who's also a gangster's girlfriend who winds up loving the people she was going to take advantage of - and Stanwyck makes it feel like the first time. Even when Gene Krupa is drumming with just matchsticks, you can't take your eyes off her, the perfect showwoman. She and Gary Cooper are sexy: what's hotter than intellectual sparring between two hot people?


My vote goes to:


Tomorrow, the last of the Oscar categories, Best Director: John Ford (How Green Was My Valley), Alexander Hall (Here Comes Mr. Jordan), Howard Hawks (Sergeant York), Orson Welles (Citizen Kane), and William Wyler (The Little Foxes).

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