The Oscar Quest: Best Actress – 1948

This is one of my personal favorite individual categories of all time. Not so much based on the nominees, based on the winner. This, to me, is a top five Best Actress decision of all time. I love it so much. Which is great, because, without this, 1948 would be practically intolerable.

1948 is the year Hamlet wins Best Picture. Easily the single worst Best Picture decision of all time. Hamlet itself is not a terrible picture. In fact, had it won in 1947, I’d probably say it’s a fine and even admirable decision. But, here’s what it beat: Johnny Belinda (which, if you know nothing about it, wait a second, I’ll tell you. Also, watch it. You’ll see), The Snake Pit (also, I’ll be talking about it in a second), The Red Shoes (I bet you’ve heard of this one. One of the most beautiful films ever made, and contains the most breathtaking dance sequence ever put to film), and some little film called The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. I think we can all agree — the choice was not okay.

Best Actor this year was Laurence Olivier, for Hamlet. This was a perfect decision. Especially since Humphrey Bogart wasn’t nominated. Best Supporting Actor was Walter Huston and Best Director was John Huston, both for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and Best Supporting Actress was Claire Trevor, for Key Largo (which, coincidentally, was also directed by John Huston. Nice bit of trivia. He directed both Supporting Oscar-winning performances this year). Still, that Hamlet decision is not cool.


And the nominees were…

Ingrid Bergman, Joan of Arc

Olivia de Havilland, The Snake Pit

Irene Dunne, I Remember Mama

Barbara Stanwyck, Sorry, Wrong Number

Jane Wyman, Johnny Belinda

Bergman — Oh good, we start with this one. Joan of Arc is a story I think everyone knows about. I mean, all you need to do is watch the “Tales from the Public Domain” episode of the Simpsons, and in the span of about seven minutes you have essentially seen this entire move. Don’t believe me? Watch it. The Simpsons covered this entire movie in a third of an episode. That’s not so much a dig at this movie as it is a huge compliment toward The Simpsons. (Seriously though, read this. Tell me it’s not exactly the same.)

Joan is a poor country girl in France. One day she hears a voice from god telling her she’s to save the French. She travels to tell the dauphin. They don’t take her in at first, they say she’s crazy. She hangs around the town saying it’s true. Then they bring her in to the dauphin, but switch him out with an impostor to test if she was really sent by god. She manages to find the real dauphin despite never seeing him before in her life. They believe her. They send her to the front. She fights with the French against the English (the 100 years war, then known as “Operation Speedy Resolution”), and turns the battle in their favor. One battle she gets injured, and they realize she’s just a girl and not a god, and they lose morale. But then, after they lose the battle, she has them attack, because the English will be happy and drunk, thinking they won. And the French win. And they keep winning until the English manage to capture her. They put her on trial for being a witch and a heretic or whatever, and eventually trick her into signing a confession, even though she maintains her beliefs the whole time, and then they burn her at the stake. Ba dum bum.

I had no ending. The movie actually ends with her being burned at the stake. But anyway, the film is actually pretty decent. It’s nice and colorful. Very interesting color palette. It’s not a bad movie, just — we’ve seen it before. Personally I prefer the Georges Méliès version instead, especially when you watch it with the commentary by that French historian dude. This one:

That French guy provides the best commentary track I’ve ever heard.

The film is good. Bergman’s performance is — well, she’s there. You know, for all the love Ingrid Bergman gets, of all the Oscar nominated performances she’s had (and the three Oscars she’s one), I really haven’t loved any of her performances (except Casablanca, but that’s a horse of a different color. Caballoblanco, if you will. Oh please, you knew I was gonna go there). She’s one of those actresses who I think I like when I think about her, but, when I watch her movies, I don’t particularly enjoy them all that much. Well, The Bells of St. Mary’s is fun, but, the rest, meh. Even her Hicthcock movies. Those are certainly not the ones I’m gonna watch first. It’s weird, how I had to do an Oscar Quest to find this out. I’m goddamned disillusioned! What is this shit?

Anyway, yeah, she’s clearly #5 on this list. At best you can say she’s #4 here. There’s no way anyone, having seen all five of these performances, can rank her higher than 4th.

de Havilland — Oh, Olivia. I love Olivia. She makes such great movies. I mean, she tended to play the wronged, naive woman a bit much (like Hold Back the Dawn. That was a bit, much), but she clearly had great range, considering she could play great opposite Errol Flynn in stuff like Robin Hood and Dodge City (and also, I love that after all the movies they made together, and all his attempts to try to fuck her, he never  succeeded. Maybe that’s why he spoke well of her in that autobiography of his) and also do shit like this and The Heiress. Honestly, if it weren’t for Jane Wyman’s performance here, Olivia would be a runaway winner on this list. Seriously.

The film opens with Olivia waking up in a mental hospital and not remembering how she got there. And slowly we start to flash back to figure out how she got there, and basically, we find out gradually that she’s a schizophrenic, which is not something that was done much in the movies (at least, as open as it is here). And she’s schizophrenic, and the whole movie is about her doctor helping her work through it. And she first needs to accept she’s sick, and also go through her past and find out how she got here, and we see her meeting a man and marrying him and stuff, and we flash back and forth and see him visiting her in the present, and eventually she gets better and befriends and even helps some of the other patients, and eventually she gets all better.

It’s a fantastic film. The reason for that is — first, it’s just paced really well. The whole thing is very small, and is just one woman’s attempt at recovery. And that’s fascinating. Second, it’s very clinical in its description of schizophrenia and its portrayal of the hospital and all that. And that’s rare. Very rarely do you see a film not strapped to the nines with dramatic cliches and stuff. That’s not to say those aren’t here, but, the film feels very real. Or at least, the whole thing feels realistic, in a way. I mean, it is 1948, so, temper all the expectations. But still, I think the whole film works really well. And what really makes it is de Havilland’s performance.

She went on a run of great performances in the latter half of this decade, partly because — trivia time. She actually won a landmark court case in the early 40s because, when she was at Warners, she felt she was being typecasted (those Errol Flynn movies), so she turned down one role they offered her and wanted new ones. But then, when her contract was up, they added six months to it because she turned down a role. They could do that back then. Even Bette Davis, the biggest star in Hollywood, couldn’t beat the studios. They had all the power back then. Only like five actors had the power to choose their own roles. Like Frederic March, Cary Grant and a few others. And after they added the time to her contract, she lawyered up. They weren’t actually allowed to do that. Just one of the many illegalities the studios were operating on before the Paramount Decision. And she won the case, and actually took away soem power from the studios and got more freedom given to the performers. Huge deal back then. Now, it’s standard for the stars to dominate the whole thing, but then, it was completely opposite. Anyway, she had a great run of performances because she could pick her roles. And she was really good at doing it. She had To Each His Own in 46, which won her an Oscar, then this in 48, and then The Heiress the year after this, which won her her second Oscar (and it’s a brilliant performance too).

de Havilland is amazing in this movie, and really, if there weren’t already a better choice, she’d be the #1 performance in this category and would probably get my vote based off that alone. I mean, there are two others who might get my vote for sentimental reasons, but she’d be the best performance. But, there is a better choice and a better performance in this category, so fortunately I don’t have to deal with any of that. But she’s fucking great in this role, and it’s also a wonderful film, so we’ll always have that.

Dunne — This is one of those roles where, you just know it’s an Oscar-nominated role. You can just tell. If the category weren’t so strong, she’d probably have won.

The film is about a family of immigrants, based on a memoir written by — some author or columnist, you know how it was in the 40s, all those memoirs got poignant prestige pictures. Irene Dunne is the mother — oh, they’re Norwegian — and the movie is just about the girl’s recollections of her childhood. Mostly it’s vignettes of sorts, one story after another, the way one recalls their childhood. But it works. It starts with a recurring motif throughout the film, where the family figures out their finances for the month, figuring out, “We need 18 cents for the gas bill, 23 cents for the rent, 4 cents for Christine’s dress — ” and stuff like that. This is the early 1900s, by the way, in case you were like, “Why is everything so inexpensive?” And they go through and everyone chips in whatever money they have. And finally, they tally it up, and if they have enough to cover it all, Mama (Dunne) says, “It is good. We will not have to go to the bank.” And “go to the bank” means, they won’t have to withdraw from their savings account, which the children know, you don’t want to do that.

Then we get certain stories the girl remembers, like when her aunt wanted to get married, and her sister getting sick, and then the cat getting sick, and their crazy uncle and the girl going as he’s dying and being there as he dies, and stuff like that. Stuff you remember when you’re a child. And the big scene in the movie is kind of a “Gift of the Magi” scene, where the girl wants a dresser set — one of those vanity things, plastic, stupid thing you want as a teenager — for her graduation, and the family is like, “It costs too much money,” but she’s like, “Oh, but I want it so much,” and, in order for her daughter to be happy, the mother goes and sells her broach, which belonged to her grandmother, and is a family heirloom. And she doesn’t think twice about it, because, it’s for her daughter. And the girl gets the set and is very happy and all. Then one of the sisters is angry at the daughter because she’s so proud about the set, she tells her what the mother did. Stuff siblings do. And the girl is so upset she goes and returns the set for the broach back, and it’s a brilliant moment, because once she does that, another one of the little motifs they build comes back, where the kids are like, “When will we get to drink coffee?” and the father is like, “When you’re grown up,” and when they see what the girl did, the mother gives her the broach and the father offers her a cup of coffee. It’s really a wonderful moment.

And the rest of the film is about the kids growing up and, one wants to be a doctor, one wants to be a writer and all that, and them working to put them through school and such, and the whole time, Mama is there. She’s the backbone of the entire film. And finally, when the girl grows up and wants to be a writer, the mother goes and talks to a famous writer, who happens to be big on cooking, and trades her family recipe in exchange for her reading her daughter’s work. And the author tells the girl to write about what she knows best. And the end of the film — this is actually making me tear up right now — is the family gathered around to read the girl’s story, which was accepted for publication. And earlier the mother told her she should write about her father, and then when they start reading, it starts, “I remember Mama,” and writes about all the stuff we just saw. It’s so great. It really is. I love this movie so much.

Irene Dunne is perfect as the mother, and, really, I wish I could vote for her here. But I can’t. But she’ll always be a sentimental favorite for me. I really can’t recommend this movie highly enough.

Stanwyck — Here’s a movie I didn’t know what to make of at first. I felt it could either be really bad or really good. I kind of expected it to be really bad. I mean, the synopsis is, “A spoiled rich woman stuck in bed accidentally overhears a plot to kill someone.” And I’m like, “How can you get a film out of that?” Well, I’ll tell you.

Barbara Stanwyck is the spoiled woman. She’s stuck in bed and is the daughter of a millionaire. The only way she is connected to anything but her bed is by the phone. So she calls people and gossips and stuff all day. And one night, on the phone, while her husband is out of town — or rather, missing, since she can’t get a hold of him — she overhears a murder plot. And she keeps trying to find out who’s going to be killed, and while that’s happening, she flashes back to meeting her husband — who is Burt Lancaster. And we see them meeting, and everything goes well, but then she gets sickly, and Lancaster can’t take it, so he starts escaping by going out all the time, and we see the marriage start to strain, and then in the present we see her making calls to figure out who’s going to be killed, and then she starts finding out about all this shady business her husband is involved in. Basically, what’s revealed — don’t read if you don’t want to know, because it is entertaining how they do it. The film is shot in real time with flashbacks — her husband, trying to get respect from her father (who didn’t want them to marry), tries to do some kind of a deal, but then realizes the men are shady, and gets himself embroiled in all of this. And then Stanwyck starts rushing to get Lancaster’s name cleared, because she finds out that’s the reason he’s been missing. And she starts trying to make that right, but then, on the other end, she called back the number where she heard the murder plot (two men are playing cards and the phone lines were crossed), and she gets the man’s wife, who suspects something and starts trying to figure out who’s going to be killed because — you know women, they strike up friendships on the phone and all. So, as she’s saving her husband — all of this from bed — she finds out that she’s the one that they’re planning on murdering. And what’s worse, her husband planned it. But he’s had a change of heart, because he originally thought killing her would be his way out of this, but he realizes he loves her, so he tells her when and how they’re gonna do it, and the end of the film is a race by her to get to someone in time, since she can’t defend herself. And the very end of the film is a brilliantly cut sequence where the killer (shown only in shadows and POV) is coming up the stairs, and she’s trying to scream for help (but can’t be heard, because they’re planning on killing her while a train is passing by outside) and Lancaster is trying to get on the phone to tell the guy not to do it, and the end of the film is the dude killing her, picking up the phone (which Lancaster is on, hoping to call the whole thing off) and saying, “Sorry, wrong number,” and hanging up. It’s so fucking good.

The movie is really good. I highly recommend it. It’s a great little noir and the real time thing is a great touch. Stanwyck is really good in the movie, even if she is a bit annoying at the start of it. It’s a good performance and all, but, she was never going to win for this. I mean, if she didn’t win for Double Indemnity, she was never going to win one. It’s a shame, but, it happens. She’s good, but she’s no more than a #4 here.

Wyman — And, here’s your winner. Seriously, this movie is perfect. And when I say perfect, I mean, perfect. Because, it’s melodrama, but, they delay the melodrama until the second half of the film, so by that point you’re already hooked. I like to compare it to Jaws, because, I can, and because, no one else would dare make this connection. By the time the shark pops out of the water and is so clearly fake, you’re already hooked. It doesn’t matter. It’s stil scary as fuck, even if it’s clearly a giant robot. It’s the same thing here. They pepper in the melodrama flakes early on, then when it goes full melodrama, you’re already so invested in the characters, it’s riveting.

The film begins with a new doctor coming into a village. And he’s trying to win the respect of the people after the previous doctor died very suddenly. And we see him going on cases and stuff, trying to earn their trust. Then one day he stumbles upon a farm, where Charles BIckford and Agnes Moorehead live. These two are so fucking good in this movie, they both should have won Oscars. And they’re working a farm — Bickford is the type that’s all about hard work and stuff, since, he’s really the only one running the farm. And he has a daughter, Belinda, who is a deaf-mute. And he hates her because he thinks she’s stupid and can’t work. And Moorehead is her aunt. And both don’t like her because she’s deaf and because her mother died giving birth to her. But, the doctor finds out very quickly, that despite never being taught in any way, she’s intelligent. So he starts teaching her sign language and teaching her to communicate. And he starts to feel a fatherly affection toward her (though he is also kind of attraction to her. It’s a weird relationship they have). And the first half of the film is this girl, who was treated as just a stupid animal in a way, learning to comunicate and show feelings. And even her father and her aunt begin to respect her and even admire her courage. And the doctor becomes very attached to her, and everything goes really well.

Then, once she’s really able to communicate, they bring her to a dance in town, where a local boy, attracted to Belinda, tries to get with her. She’s not interested (because she likes the doctor) and rebuffs his advances. Then, one day, when no one’s at home, he comes over and rapes her. And she becomes pregnant and has a kid. And, through a combination of her not being able to (or willing to) communicate, she never actually tells anyone what happens. And everyone suspects the doctor, because he’s the one who’s spent so much time with her. And the doctor, under pressure from all sides, decides to marry her in order to decrease suspicion. And he travels away to find a home for them away from the prejudices of the town.

But, while this happens, the actual father of the child decides he wants the kid. So he goes to visit the kid, and when he does, her father sees him, and tells him to get the fuck out of there. Because he knows what happened. And the guy says the kid is his and he’ll come back for it. And the father chases after him, saying he’s gonna go expose him to the town. Which, of course, leads to a struggle and the father ends up falling off a cliff to his death. Enter melodrama.

So now, the girls are on the farm by themselves, trying to maintain it. And while this is going on, the town gathers, and at the douchebag’s urging, finds Belinda an “unfit mother” for the child. And it just so happens that he and his wife decide to be nice and to take the baby. How coincidental. And they go to get the baby, but Belinda, not having any of that shit, shoots him dead. And they put her on trial for it, and the doctor comes back to testify that the dude indeed raped her, but of course, no one believes it. However, the mother of the child, out of sympathy for Belinda and feelings for the doctor, says that it’s true. And Belinda is acquitted and freed to be with her child.

Seriously, it’s a perfect movie. And Jane Wyman delivers one of the best performances I’ve ever seen. I dare you to watch this movie and not feel sympathy for this character. I dare you to not fall in love with this character. And she does it all with facial expressions. She does not utter one word throughout this entire film. I’m gonna tell you right now, when I compile my list of films I’m glad I discovered because of this Quest, this is going to be number 2 on it. That’s how much I love this film.

Jane Wyman deserved this Oscar. And it’s one of the best decisions the Academy has ever made. So much so that it almost makes me willing to accept the terrible Best Picture decision because of it.

My Thoughts: Jane Wyman blows all of the competition out of the water here. It’s seriously not even close. I consider this, out of all the Best Actress winning performances, probably a Top Fiver of all time. That’s how good this performance is. And she doesn’t even speak. She’s a far and away winner here. Olivia de Havilland is a far and away #2. Then I’d put Irene Dunne second for a vote, just because she never won and because this is the perfect performance for her. But, Jane Wyman really deserved this. Her performance and the film are perfect.

My Vote: Wyman

Should Have Won: Wyman

Is the result acceptable?: Oh yeah. I already said, a top five decision of all time. One and two clearly need to be the Vivien Leigh performances, but I might say I’d put her third on that list. Meryl probably gets top five for Sophie’s Choice, so she’s in there too, and #5 is — I don’t know, I haven’t figured it out yet, but Wyman definitely makes my top five. So this is the only acceptable decision for this year.

Performances I suggest you see: Johnny Belinda is a perfect movie, and for my money, is an essential film. If I had to create a list of films I thought you had to see, it would be on it. I don’t think there’s anything else I can say to recommend it any higher. The Snake Pit is also a fantastic film. Not quite essential, but really fucking good. It’s perhaps the most ahead of its time look at schizophrenia I’ve ever seen. The fact that this was made in 1948 is astounding. It’s really fucking good. And I Remember Mama is also a perfect movie, but in a completely different way. It’s just so poignant, and just so good. It’s the It’s a Wonderful Life of Mother’s Day films. And if you need anything more than that, I don’t know what I can do for you. And Sorry, Wrong Number is a great film, and very, very worth seeing. It’s relatively short, and moves really fast. It’s a great twist on the noir, since it’s real time and confined mostly to one location. It’s really good. Underrated film, this is. And Joan of Arc is very worth seeing because, well, if you don’t know the story (and haven’t seen the brilliant and essential The Passion of Joan of Arc), it’s a good version to watch, it’s very colorful, and, trust me, if you’ve seen The Simpsons doing Joan of Arc, you will have a ball during this movie. They got it perfect in their recreation.

So, if I had to recommend quickly and in order, I’d do it like this: Johnny Belinda you must see. The performance is so good I think everyone will like it. I Remember Mama should be a must see, but isn’t quite. But still, there are few movies I will recommend higher than this that aren’t essential. Sorry, Wrong Number is a great thriller, and I guarantee you will be better than 80% of the thrillers you’ve seen in the past decade. The Snake Pit is also a near perfect movie and a brilliant look at schizophrenia in an era when you couldn’t discuss just about everything on film. I bet you you’ll be thoroughly engaged by this movie. In fact, I almost guarantee it. It’s pretty spellbinding, how they do it. And Joan of Arc, if you want the most accessible version of the story (on film), go for this one, even though The Passion of Joan of Arc is infinitely better. But the joy here is watching it alongside The Simpsons version of the Joan of Arc story, because that’s how you’ll get the maximum entertainment out of it.


5) Bergman

4) Stanwyck

3) Dunne

2) de Havilland

1) Wyman

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