The Oscar Quest: Best Actress – 1932-1933

I wanted to get in a really old race as early as possible. To show that the Academy did actually spend time growing into the traditions they have today.

At first, they had a small board that voted the best performances, and there weren’t even ballots. Then the second year there weren’t even official nominees. Then after that, they had official nominees, but it depended on how the board voted. Some years had 8 nominees for Best Picture, some had six, one had twelve. It wasn’t until 1934, the year after this one, that the standard system was formulated — 10 Best Picture nominees (5 after 1943) and 5 acting nominees. Before that, however, it was kind of arbitrary who was gonna get nominated. There were quite a few write-in nominees that came very close to winning. Back then the Academy announced some years (especially in three-person categories) who finished second and who finished third.

It’s interesting to look at these early categories, because you really do get a sense of a body building its own identity from the ground up. Also of note, since the first six years of the Academy had years that were numbered by two. You had 1927-1928, 28-29, 29-30, 30-31, 31-32 and 32-33. After this was 1934. So the way you tell what year the picture is actually for is by looking at the last one in the set. The 1932-1933 Oscars were for films released in 1933. They soon figured out that cutting off the first year makes it easier to keep track of.

So, 1933. Best Picture went to Cavalcade, a British family drama. If you’re familiar with Academy history, it’s kind of like — not entirely, but basic parallels are there — Mrs. Miniver, which won Best Picture 9 years later. It’s a curious choice, and one that’s considered one of the worst of all time. Or, at least, it’s considered one of the worst winners of all time, not necessarily one of the worst choices. (Driving Miss Daisy was a bad choice. Tom Jones was a bad winner. The difference is competition.) I don’t have a final opinion on that one, since I still need to see a couple films from the year before I decide what I think. (Also, for those following The Oscar Quest, you’ll notice that I’ve seen every Best Picture nominee from 1943 to the present. Of course, a few need rewatches for voting purposes, but in essence, I have seen all the films. And if it wren’t for me trying to finish some more acting/directing categories first, I have all but five in my possession to watch.) Best Actor went to Charles Laughton for The Private Life of Henry VIII, another British production. And, there were no supporting categories until 1936. See what I mean about the Academy discovering itself?

BEST ACTRESS – 1932-1933

And the nominees are…

Katharine Hepburn, Morning Glory

Mary Robson, Lady for a Day

Diana Wynyard, Cavalcade

Hepburn — This is a case of a “star is born” performance. Before A Star is Born existed. This is the kind of performance that makes an actress. Like Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday or Carey Mulligan in An Education (only difference being, one of those didn’t win. Fucking Sandra Bullock…). It’s the performance that announces the person to the world and cements them as a good actress. And then their work over the following years cements them as either a great actress or a good actress who didn’t quite live up to their promise. Clearly, Kate Hepburn lived up to her promise.

What’s interesting about this is that after this year, she didn’t win an Oscar for another 34 years. Then she won three in the span of 14 years. One was a tie, but, still, she’s got the statue.

Anyway, the performance — essentially her first major leading role (she had one movie where she was the daughter and it was about a family — one of those lead/supporting kind of roles — and one where she was the lead, but it was a small movie — both of those within a year of this one, so, really she came on very suddenly — like when an actor pops up in a memorable supporting role, then has a crazy good lead role and then another movie they’re in when you didn’t even know they existed before them and somehow just got in all these movies) — is clearly meant one that announces her to the world. She plays an aspiring actress who comes from local theater and wants to make it on Broadway. She comes to audition for the top producer and writer, and they say she’s not experienced enough to get a role. But she wins them over with her charm and endless dedication and desire to succeed. And eventually they agree to give her a small part and let her prove herself. And she works and works, never hiding the fact that she wants to be a star, and eventually, as it happens (as it always happens), the star of the show walks out over money concerns and guess who has to step into the role? Good old Kate. She works with the writer to improve her ability and — they fall in love — you know they do — and then she goes out and makes herself a star. The end.

Isn’t it just the perfect little picture to get an actress noticed? They literally end the picture with one of those — you went out a nobody and came out a star — feelings. As if it weren’t subtle enough.

Normally I don’t go for these sort of things — which is both true and false. Clearly Audrey and Carey’s performances didn’t feel like it. This one seemed specifically designed, right down to the scenes to show her versatility. There’s the dramatic scene where she gets to cry and be melodramatic, the charming scene where she gets to be lively and win us over at the beginning. There’s even a comic scene where she goes to one of those parties, has a glass of champagne (which she’d never had before because she’s a “good girl”) and gets drunk. So she stumbles around all drunkenly and it’s hi-larious. You can see where they deliberately made it for her to get noticed because of this. The other two were more — Audrey was just beautiful and charming and Carey just got to be her role. There never seemed (at least overtly, if they are there. I don’t care to find out) scenes designed to be like that close up I hate in movies — the one that’s a deliberate close-up (I’m talking nowadays), different than the others, within the same set of close-ups. The one where the actress turns their head and smiles at their mark. At least black and white movies had the decency to shoot the entire exchange that way. What I’m saying is, these types of roles feel cheap.

However, god dam it if Kate isn’t charming as hell in this. It’s a side of her you don’t see very often. Very rarely does she play light. Even when she is in comedies, her character either has a bitchiness to it or she’s completely crazy. Here she gets to play the working class girl. It’s a performance that — amongst her Oscar winning performances, is the one I agree with the most (probably due to the competition) — amongst this set of nominees, is actually the best choice.

Robson — This is a good performance, but not one I’d vote for. This is an early Frank Capra film — generally people don’t know of anything he did before It Happened One Night (which came out the year after this) — about a poor old apple seller whose daughter writes her to say she’s coming to visit. Her daughter hadn’t seen her for several years and is coming back to the country. Now, Robson, who assumed her daughter would never come back, has been writing to her and telling her she’s rich and has all these great things going for her. So now, she has to live the lie. She finds some of her well-to-do friends — those ones who talk to her even though she’s dirty and sells apples and talks like Eliza Dolittle with worse teeth — and asks them to help her out, for appearances sake. And because it’s a Frank Capra movie, everybody pitches in to help her out. It’s really a Pygmalion type story, except the Frank Capra version.

They all get her to appear as though she’s a lady, get a man to pose as her husband, and make everything appear the way it is in her letters. They keep up the charade — including “getting rid of” three nosy reporters who can’t find any public record of her (did I mention one of her “friends” just happens to be a gangster?). Everything goes smoothly until the night of, when the police figure out the gangster must have gotten rid of the reporters, surround the place they’re throwing the going away party for the daughter (who is with her fiance and his father — a count), as they go through final rehearsal. And they explain to the police and are about to give up everything — when the Frank Capra miracle kicks in.

You know the Frank Capra miracle, don’t you? It’s that transcendental moment at the end of the film when all hope is lost and then the community all rallies together to help the person in need. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, it’s when Jeff’s about to give up, and the bags and bags of letters come in to give him hope and tell him that everyone back home believes in him despite the lies the mob boss has been telling him. You Can’t Take It With You, it’s when Lionel Barrymore has to pay the fine, which he can’t afford, and everyone from the town immediately chips in the money and pays it for him. It’s a Wonderful Life — do I even need to tell you which scene that is? The Frank Capra miracle is actually kind of a miracle, because, no matter how saccharine it is, it still works. You still go for it.

That’s what happens here. Just when she’s about to give up her ruse, the governor and the mayor come in and continue the story. They fete her like she’s a very influential citizen and convince the daughter that she’s very well-known, and everyone ense up happy. That’s how Capra movies work. And then they end right at that happy moment. They don’t tell you what happens afterward. That’s the magic of Frank Capra. As soon as the movie’s over it’s like the end of a musical number, everyone frozen in place in uncomfortable positions, like — “What do we do now?”

Robson is good in the role, because, like I said, she gets to do the Pygmalion thing. She’s all crude and unglamorous and gets to class it up by the end. It’s a fine performance, but, like I said, I can’t vote for it. The movie itself doesn’t completely work. You can tell it doesn’t because Capra himself remade the film thirty years later (as his final film, no less). It works, but it doesn’t have that Capra touch that his big hits have.

Wynyard — Here’s a movie I liked but didn’t love. A performance that, if there weren’t any upbeat ones, I would have voted for. It’s a fine performance in a movie that’s essentially a domestic drama. It’s about a family over the span of like thirty years. So you see her with her husband and two young children. See them living through all the famous events of the early 20th century. It’s like Driving Miss Daisy. Not so much Gump. No AIDS. But, the family lives through all this shit, Dad goes and fights in the war, and they’re all worried, the children grow up, get married, and mom goes through all the emotions of a movie housewife. It’s a fine performance and all, but, it’s not really one I want to vote for unless I have to. I don’t even really want to get into it, since, it’s a movie that’s one of those — yeah, it’s fine, but, can’t we find something a little more interesting to vote for? (Hint: I had this exact same reaction for the 2010 Oscars.)

My Thoughts: Hepburn really is the vote here. Maybe Wynyard, but Hepburn is just so jovial and winning in the performance, you have to vote for her.

My Vote: Hepburn

Should Have Won: Hepburn, and I guess, maybe Wynyard. Personal choice.

Is the result acceptable?: Yup.

Rankings:

3) Robson

2) Wynyard

1) Hepburn

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