The Oscar Quest: Best Actress – 1941
The great thing about the 1940-1945 years is that you could always count on the same actresses being in almost every category. Put it this way: of the 30 nominees for Best Actress between 1940 and 1945, the nominees in just this category account for 15 of them. And add Katharine Hepburn, Jennifer Jones and Ingrid Bergman to that list, and 22 of the 30 nominees are accounted for. That’s pretty insane.
As for 1941 — we all know how bad it was. How Green Was My Valley beats Citizen Kane for Best Picture and John Ford beats Orson Welles for Best Director (talked about here). ’nuff said there. Donald Crisp won Best Supporting Actor for the film, which does actually make sense, though, as I said here, I’d totally have given it to Sydney Greenstreet for The Maltese Falcon. That man is awesome. Then Gary Cooper wins Best Actor for Sergeant York (talked about here), which I don’t like, but understand (you really think they were gonna give it to Orson?). And Best Supporting Actress was Mary Astor for The Great Lie, which is a fine decision, since she was also in The Maltese Falcon this year. So even though it’s for the more forgotten of the two films, it’s cool that she won.
Now for this category. This is pretty cut and dry. It’s a make up Oscar. Everyone understands this, and it’s totally acceptable. Just know, I wouldn’t (and won’t) vote for it. I thought there was a better performance. But since all the principals (for the most part) won Oscars, this is a fine decision.
BEST ACTRESS – 1941
And the nominees are…
Bette Davis, The Little Foxes
Olivia de Havilland, Hold Back the Dawn
Joan Fontaine, Suspicion
Greer Garson, Blossoms in the Dust
Barbara Stanwyck, Ball of Fire
Davis — The Little Foxes is one of those Bette Davis “bitch” films. That’s how Bette’s films go. Either she’s tragic heroine or the bitch. Usually some combination of both.
This film is about her being a bitch and hating her husband. She tries to be independent, and belittles her husband. She eventually kills him by getting him worked up, knowing he has a heart condition. And he dies, and her family finds out it was her fault and walks out on her. So the film is mostly her trying to be independent and driving away everybody. I didn’t like it.
Bette won two Oscars by this point, and I never particularly cared for her as an actress. If you think she’s anything but my #5 here, you’re delusional.
de Havilland — Olivia de Havilland gave some great performances over her career. Three of which should have won her an Oscar. Two of which did. This one, however, is one of those, ‘almost, but not quite’ nominations. You can see what would later lead to her winning, but all the pieces are not quite in order yet.
Hold Back the Dawn — what a terrible title — is about Charles Boyer, a gigolo, hanging around in Mexico, looking to find a wife so he can get American citizenship. He finds Olivia de Havilland, a schoolteacher who is not married and worried about it. And he sees her as an easy target. He figures — she’s never been with a man, I’ll pop that shit, she’ll love me, easy peasy, yup and easy. And that’s what happens. She falls in love with him very quickly. Problem is, he starts to fall in love with her too. And of course, when he gives up his plan, that’s when she finds out about his former intentions, and then he sneaks into the country to get her back, but of course she gets into a car accident and is hurt — it’s melodrama, folks. You know what happens. (They get together. So not actually melodrama, in the Greek sense.)
Olivia is actually really strong here. She’s lively, and she makes you fall in love with her. As she does in every role. Thing is, though, she isn’t quite there yet. It’s good, but not worth a vote. She had her years in ’46, ’48 and ’49. She could have won all three of those and it would have been okay (though not so much ’48. That was Jane Wyman’s all the way). But not this one.
Fontaine — Suspicion is a Hitchcock film about Joan Fontaine, who falls in love with and marries Cary Grant. And after they get married, she begins to suspect that he’s out to kill her. And that’s the film. She gets more and more paranoid, because it seems more and more like he’s trying to kill her in order to pay his debts. I’ll stop there, because I don’t want to give anything away, but see it, it’s awesome.
Fontaine is good here, but I think it’s universally accepted that she was better in Rebecca the year before this. So this is pretty much a make up Oscar. And I support that. The performance on its own, I feel, would be only a #2 for me, but the fact that she earned the Oscar the year before this pushes it over the top. She did deserve this.
Garson — Blossoms in the Dust is a film about a woman who loses her child in a terrible accident and then decides to help orphans find homes. It’s actually a really strong film. It starts off like a melodrama. Her and her husband are happy, it’s Christmas, they send the son out on a joy ride — boom, dead. Then we fast forward, and she’s got a bunch of kids in the house that she’s caring for. I liked how they skipped the funeral and all that. And then she’s caring for all these kids, and then she decides to start a nursery and help the orphans, and we see her doing that, and the big climax is when someone gives a kid up for adoption and then years later wants them back, and she has to prove that she’s a better guardian than the actual parent.
I actually really, really liked this film. I thought it was very well done, and used the melodrama to full effect at the beginning, and then didn’t fall into the typical movie tropes. It just felt refreshing. So I really recommend this one.
As for Garson’s performance — to me, she gave the best performance in the category. I get that Fontaine should have won and Garson won the year after this, so the end result is perfect. I’m just saying that I felt Garson gave the best performance, and will be voting for her based on that. But the result that happened is perfect.
Stanwyck — Ball of Fire is a Howard Hawks film. That should take precedent with any of his films. It’s about a group of professors who are getting together to write an encyclopedia of everything. And while compiling all their research — they all live together cooped up in one place (needless to say they’re all a bit, “quirky”) — they meet Barbara Stanwyck. She’s a burlesque dancer who sees her mobster boyfriend kill a dude and has to hide because he’s gonna kill her to shut her up. So she comes and lives with the professors. And she teaches them modern ways. Slang and stuff. And she also falls in love with Gary Cooper.
My Thoughts: From an Academy’s perspective, very simple. Joan Fontaine. She should have won last year for Rebecca, but last year was the Academy’s only chance to honor Ginger Rogers. I supported that, even though I understood that Fontaine gave the best performance. So they made it up to her this year. Totally cool.
Though, personally, I say Greer Garson gave the best performance in the category. Fontaine was a close second, but Garson was my personal choice. But, fortunately, even though Fontaine had to win, the bump only lasted one year, and Garson won for Mrs. Miniver the year after this, which was a Best Picture winner, which made the whole thing work out with a nice bow on top. Everything fell into place there, the way it so rarely does in the Academy. So, while I support the win for Fontaine, I’m still voting for Garson. For me, she gave the Best performance.
My Vote: Garson
Should Have Won: Fontaine, Garson
Is the result acceptable?: Oh hell yeah. She earned this the year before this. This was an easy decision.
Performances I suggest you see: Suspicion. Hitchcock. Cary Grant. Oscar winner. Why wouldn’t you see it?
Blossoms in the Dust is a film I recommend highly. I’ve watched a lot of films from this era. And when I say this was one of the better ones — believe me, it’s one of the better ones. Strongly recommended.
Ball of Fire is a Howard Hawks and it’s really funny. That should be enough for most sane and reasonable people.
3) de Havilland