The Oscar Quest: Best Actress – 1944

This year is the last year history was made. That is — Greer Garson is one of only two actresses to be nominated for Best Actress for five consecutive years. Can you believe that? Five consecutive years. Not even Brando did that, and not just because he was a male actor. The first person to do it was Bette Davis, which, ironically, her five years overlapped with Greer’s. And even more coincidental is, both were nominated for six out of seven as well. Bette Davis was nominated for five in a row, skipped a year at the end, then got a sixth nomination right after. Greer Garson got one nomination, skipped a year, then got five in a row. I love these types of coincidences.

For trivia purposes, Davis’s nominations were: 1938: Jezebel (won), 1939: Dark Victory: 1940: The Letter, 1941: The Little Foxes, and 1942: Now, Voyager. Then a skip year and in 1944: Mr. Skeffington. Garson’s nominations were: 1939: Goodbye, Mr. Chips, then a skip year, then, 1941: Blossoms in the Dust, 1942: Mrs. Miniver (won), 1943: Madame Curie, 1944: Mrs. Parkington, and 1945: The Valley of Decision. So, for the seven years between 1939 and 1945, Greer Garson and Bette Davis were two of the five Best Actress nominees in ’39, ’41, ’42, and ’44. And in 1944, their films were Mr. Skeffington and Mrs. Parkington. Eerie, right?

As for the rest of 1944, Going My Way wins Best Picture, Best Director for Leo McCarey (talked about here), Best Actor for Bing Crosby (talked about here) and Best Supporting Actor for Barry Fitzgerald (talked about here). And Ethel Barrymore wins Best Supporting Actress for None But the Lonely Heart. In all I think this is an okay year, but not as good as it could have been.

BEST ACTRESS – 1944

And the nominees were…

Ingrid Bergman, Gaslight

Claudette Colbert, Since You Went Away

Bette Davis, Mr. Skeffington

Greer Garson, Mrs. Parkington

Barbara Stanwyck, Double Indemnity

Bergman — Gaslight is a film that’s a good film, but one I don’t love as much as I could because, at its heart it’s a mystery. A psychological thriller. And, if you figure out what’s really going on at the beginning, then you really don’t enjoy yourself as much as someone who’s along for the ride. But, nevertheless, it’s a good flick.

Ingrid Bergman is a woman whose aunt, a famous opera singer, is murdered by someone apparently robbing her house in search of jewels.  She then goes off to Europe and becomes an opera singer herself. She then comes back to live in her aunt’s house. This freaks her out a bit, because her aunt was murdered in the place, but she powers through. Pretty soon, she meets Charles Boyer, who charms her and marries her. And she’s married and happy. And then pretty soon after that, strange things start happening. She starts seeing the lights (hence the title) flicker, and pictures start disappearing and reappearing, and things like that. And when she asks people about it, they have no idea what she’s talking about. One day, Boyer has a broach that’s gone missing, and finds it in Bergman’s purse, even though she doesn’t remember taking it. And she starts to think she’s going mad, because she’s the only one noticing all these things.

Boyer, after hearing that she thinks she’s going mad, locks her up in the house so the neighbors don’t know about it. So she’s locked up in the house, slowly going crazy over all these things. And pretty soon, she meets Joseph Cotten, who is a police officer who tries to convince her that she’s not going mad. You see, Charles Boyer is actually a jewel thief, the same one that murdered her aunt. He got close to her in the same way he’s getting close to Ingrid now. Only Ingrid’s aunt found out about him, so he killed her. Now, Boyer is driving Ingrid crazy so he can buy himself enough time to search the attic (in which there is a lot of stuff) for the jewels. And eventually, Bergman is convinced that she’s not actually going crazy, that Boyer’s been fucking with her the whole time (he’s been flickering the lights and shit very methodically), and she confronts him just as he finds the jewels. She and Cotten confront him and she ties him up, and basically starts inflicting the same torture on him that he used on her. And that’s the film.

It’s a good film, and does work o many levels. My problem with it — and this is actually mentioned in the Wikipedia article on the film, which I found interesting, because it seems like a major flaw — is that, you find out very early that Boyer is the one behind all of it. Really early in the film he loses his temper because Bergman finds a letter from the penpal her aunt was corresponding with — which was actually him and is a loose end that could tie him to the murder. And the way he reacts to it, it’s very clear what’s going on. Except, Bergman, somehow, buys his explanation. Which really just ruins the rest of the film for me, because right there, you know, and it seems so stupid that she’d fall for all this stuff. So that’s why I don’t love the film and merely like it.

Anyway, Bergman is good in the film, and I understand why they gave her the Oscar. I, personally, felt the performance was just a tad over the top at times to really vote for. Plus, having caught the gimmick really early on, I just thought the character was stupid to not realize. So I don’t like the performance for a win. But, I’m sort of okay with it, since, she earned it. So, you know, it is what it is.

Colbert — Since You Went Away is just a wonderful film for someone like me because it has everything. First, it’s a big prestige A picture from 1944. The war years. So it’s a film that’s a direct response to its time. And for someone as into film history as I am, that’s automatic interest right there. Second, it’s also a David O. Selznick picture, which, watching one of his films is just fascinating to me. That’s two. And three — it’s a woman’s picture. A prestige David O. Selznick woman’s picture about the war. That’s just — automatic watch right there, for me. Because I know, he won’t let it descend into melodrama bullshit, he’ll tell a great story, it might be slightly overdone but it will be engaging, and I’ll get to see a war I don’t care for (seriously, I hate World War II movies. Nazis, Germans, the whole thing — it bores me to death. I’ve seen it a thousand times. Give me World War I any day) from a fresh perspective.

The film is about Claudette Colbert — in a perfect role for her — as a wife whose husband goes away to fight in the war. And the film is subtly propagandistic in the sense that, it’s goal is to get Americans to want to help out in the war effort, which, isn’t so bad. Casablanca was one of those films, if you think about it. It’s become so much more than that, but, at its heart, that is what it is, besides a romance. A film about choosing sides. So this film is about helping on the war effort so as to get your loved ones to come home sooner. It’s a big, epic three hour film, and yet, it’s relatively small in scale. I mean, it looks like it cost money, but it’s not like there are war scenes and shit. It’s about a woman trying to keep her family together in the face of her husband being gone (And possibly dead). And there are subplots with her daughters, one of which is played by Jennifer Jones, who was actually good enough to win Best Supporting Actress this year, and then there’s Colbert working at a factory, doing her part — because originally she’s not for the whole help thing, figuring her husband will be home soon, and then eventually realizes (with the help of a Russian woman who works at the factory) that she does need to help. And then they take on a boarder, and — just watch the movie. It’s really great. Selznick really knows how to tell a story. It’s kind of overdone, but on the whole, really, really, good.

This is the kind of role you’d assume would win an Academy Award. Maybe that’s why it didn’t. Also because she won one, and Ingrid Bergman was overdue. But I have to assume she was second choice, the way I assume Irene Dunne was a second choice in I Remember Mama. It’s that kind of role. It’s hard to fuck it up. And Colbert doesn’t. She’s really good. But, I wouldn’t vote for her here simply because I need to vote for Bergman and I want to vote for Stanwyck. So in my mind it’s between those two. Still, the film, and Colbert are great, so that’s a nice consolation.

Davis — Mr. Skeffington is a Bette Davis melodrama. I think that about covers everything you need to know about it.

Bette Davis plays a girl who loves her brother very much. He works for Claude Rains. A Jew. This is important, because anti-Semitism (for some reason) plays a very big part in the film. I guess they needed more anti-Holocaust stuff in that whitewashed Hollywood sort of way. They really didn’t address anti-semitism correctly until 1947. And even then. Anyway, her brother steals some money from Rains and Rains wants to prosecute. So Davis marries Rains to make him forget about it. She doesn’t love him, but he really loves her. And she goes along with the marriage for her brother’s sake, and then he goes off to war and dies. At that point, she stops pretending to love Rains and starts openly hating him.

And she has a kid, but neglects it and Rains starts taking care of it, and then she goes off, fucking lots of men and living the high society life. And then the years pass, Rains goes off to Europe with his daughter, and then Bette Davis gets old (a recurring theme in her movies) and her suitors stop becoming interested in her. One even goes and marries her daughter. Then Rains comes back from Europe, and is blind because of the atrocities of the Nazis (basically the anti-Semitism was a plot device just so this ending could happen), and Bette, seeing him blind, and him still saying how beautiful she is, realizes she does love him after all, and they go and be together, blind and old and ugly. That’s the film.

Melodrama shit. You know what it is. It’s not a terrible film. I mean, it’s watchable. You just need to really like Bette Davis melodramas or Claude Rains to really get through it. Or be on an Oscar Quest. I hear tell that helps. Anyway, the film’s okay, and Bette had two Oscars already. But you knew from the start that she was gonna be #5 regardless, right? Because we’ve done a lot of categories by now.

Garson — Mrs. Parkington is a film it took me a long time to find. I think I found it on youtube, eventually. Someone uploaded a TCM version. Anyway, the film is a Greer Garson melodrama. I liked this one better than Bette Davis, because it didn’t have any of the Bette Davis tropes in it.

Greer Garson plays — guess who — who, at the start of the film is old and respected. And the rest of the film is flashback to her younger days. The whole thing happens as her granddaughter plans to elope with a man, and while the family argues about it, she has flashbacks to her youth, where she was a humble girl from an average family, who fell in love with the man whose house she was working at (as a maid, of course). He’s played by Walter Pidgeon, who she starred with for four out of her five consecutive nominations (Gregory Peck was the lead in the fifth one). And he loves her, but she thinks she’s not classy enough to marry him. So he brings her to his friend, a French countess (played brilliantly by Agnes Moorehead), to get her a nice dress and stuff. Then the rest of the film is her being upset about her husband’s business dealings, her having a miscarriage, there being marital troubles, their eventual son dying, shit like that. It’s a melodrama.

I enjoyed the film. Maybe it’s the Moorehead performance. I mean, my enjoyment is tempered. It is a melodrama. But it’s not that bad, if you love films of the era. Garson’s performance was never going to win. At best it’s a #4. She won her Oscar already, so this was just a stature nomination.

Stanwyck — Double Indemnity. Do I really need to talk about it? I feel like everyone’s seen it and knows about it, and, if they haven’t, why would I cater to you, not having seen a film you need to see?

Brief synopsis. Opening of the film, Fred MacMurray drives over to his insurance office where he works. He’s shot, and dying. He dictates into a recorder what happened to his partner, Keyes, played by Edward G. Robinson. What happened was, Phyllis Dietrichson, played by Stanwyck, comes to the office and wants to get a life insurance policy. They don’t want to give her one, because she seems kind of shady. Then she comes to MacMurray, in true femme fatale fashion, and tells him what she wants to do. She wants to take out a life insurance policy on her husband, and then have him be murdered in an “unlikely” way, in which case, the double indemnity clause kicks in, and she gets double the amount on the policy. She enlists MacMurray to kill him with her by pushing him off a train. And they do it, and shit goes wrong, and they need to cover it up. It’s that kind of noir. It’s a perfect film.

Stanwyck is great. She’s the quintessential femme fatale. Her greatest role. I vote for her, I won’t even waste any more time explaining it. This is my vote.

My Thoughts: This category comes down to Bergman and Stanwyck. Bette Davis had two, Garson had one, and Claudette Colbert was good enough to win, but she had one already as well. The reason Bergman won here is because she was robbed (robbed I tellz ya!) the year before this. It started with them nominating her for For Whom the Bell Tolls and not for Casablanca. I wouldn’t have voted for her for that film either. Plus Jennifer Jones was up and coming and was sleeping with David O. Selznick (whom she later married. Don’t get any ideas).

But still, with both those films in one year, it’s surprising they went with Jones instead. (Jones was good in The Song of Bernadette, but I’d have gone Bergman instead. Then again, I’m overlooking what she got nominated for. Based on the films that were nominated, I can see why they went with Jones.) So this one seemed like a genuine makeup Oscar. Not completely though, since the performance more than holds its own. I’d probably pick Stanwyck based solely on the fact that I love her movie more (and because this was her most iconic performance, along with The Lady Eve), but, with the previous year’s performances and the strength of this one, it’s pretty clear why they went with Bergman. So, I vote Stanwyck, but understand Bergman winning.

My Vote: Stanwyck

Should Have Won: Stanwyck, Bergman

Is the result acceptable?: Yeah. Very much so. The three performances she gave in the span of two years add up to one Oscar. I’d have given it to her the year before this (purely out of the competition factor, and that’s me looking at this in hindsight), but this year works too. The only real casualty here is Barbara Stanwyck, who ended up never winning an Oscar. And Double Indemnity is the one performance she’s known for (next to The Lady Eve, but we’re talking two sides of the same coin there). That stings a little bit, but, on the whole, this is an acceptable result.

Performances I suggest you see: Double Indemnity is a film you must see. That’s all there is to it. In terms of noir films you must see, the list is, at the bare minimum: The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, The Third Man and Touch of Evil. And that’s bare minimum, going only by the strictest sense of the word noir. There are lots of other films that fall under the heading that you also need to see, but — honestly, why the fuck are you still listening to me talk, just go watch Double Indemnity already.

Since You Went Away is a film I really like a lot. I really fell in love with the film, and, even though it’s three hours long, and kind of heavy-handed at times, I think it’s a wonderful film and highly, highly recommend it for all to see. As a Selznick film, a war film, and overall a woman’s picture (not a melodrama. A woman’s picture. One where women aren’t subjugated to supporting roles), it’s very important historically, and it’s a very good film at that. I really loved the story and how they told it, and I think everyone needs to see it.

Gaslight is a pretty good film. I did enjoy it. Didn’t love it, simply because I saw what was coming really early on, and once that happened, everything just seemed silly. But, overall, it’s a good film and worth checking out. You could almost see Hitchcock directing a film like this. He didn’t, but he might have. So, I do recommend it. It’s a good film.

And Mrs. Parkington — it’s watchable. It’s actually pretty good. If you have an appetite for film of this era like I do, this is one I recommend you see, because you won’t be bored to tears the whole time. Garson is good, and Agnes Moorehead is fantastic as always. Definitely worth a look. Don’t expect a masterpiece, but it’s definitely worth your time if you’re into this sort of thing.

Rankings:

5) Davis

4) Garson

3) Colbert

2) Bergman

1) Stanwyck

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