The Oscar Quest: Best Actress – 1937

What happened with 1937? It’s just a train wreck. Not a single good decision. Well, one good decision, but even that was for the wrong film.

The Life of Emile Zola wins Best Picture, and it’s one of the weakest Best Picture winners of all time. Definitely one of the ten worst. Joseph Schildkraut also won Best Supporting Actor for the film (talked about here), which, while it is a weak choice and he shouldn’t have won because he’s barely in the film, you can’t really call it unacceptable because the category was so bad. Picking it was just like, “I guess…”

Best Actor was Spencer Tracy for Captains Courageous (talked about here), which, while I don’t like the performance as a Best Actor-winner, I do like the fact that he won here, since it was a perfect year for him to win, and lord knows he was goinna win. (It’s his 1938 win I despise.) Best Supporting Actress this year was Alice Brady for In Old Chicago (talked about here), which I don’t much understand. It seems like a makeup Oscar for them not giving it to her the year prior. Andrea Leeds totally should have won there. She definitely gave the best performance. And Best Director this year was Leo McCarey for The Awful Truth, which, while I love the film and love that he won (because he totally should have won), the film he should have won for was Make Way for Tomorrow, which he himself said as he accepted his Oscar. Which is really just the bow on this messed up year that was 1937.

Which brings us to this category, which — given the talent that’s in this category, how — how — can they give it to the actress that won this the year before?! For a performance that was a supporting part! It’s mind-boggling how they could fuck this up. You could say — I’m not, but one could — that this single category is the reason that Irene Dunne, Greta Garbo and Barbara Stanwyck don’t have Oscars. That’s fucked up.


And the nominees were…

Irene Dunne, The Awful Truth

Janet Gaynor, A Star is Born

Greta Garbo, Camille

Luise Rainer, The Good Earth

Barbara Stanwyck, Stella Dallas

Dunne — The Awful Truth is a classic of the screwball genre. It’s actually of a very specific subgenre — the “comedy of remarriage.” The film is about a divorced couple who eventually realize they’re still in love, but not after a series of comic instances.

Cary Grant returns home from a “business trip” under some shady circumstances. His wife thinks he was in one place, in an office at a convention all weekend, meanwhile he has a tan. He’s clearly been on the beach all weekend. And it looks as though he was sleeping around with another woman. Meanwhile, he comes home and finds her with a musical teacher of hers, with whom she spent the night at his place. Both believe the other has been unfaithful and they divorce. Thing is, though, they still love one another. And the ‘awful truth’ of the film is that they weren’t unfaithful, and that they do still love one another.

So we flash forward to months later, and they’re now divorced. And he’s a man about town, seeing socialites, and she’s at home with her mother, who is trying to fix her up with Ralph Bellamy, the nice boy next door (who happens to be the heir to an oil fortune). And a series of comic instances occurs, whereby Grant, still in love with Dunne, ruins her chances with Bellamy. Then Dunne, hearing Grant is with the socialite, ruins his chances with her. She shows up at her house, pretending to be Grant’s sister, and pretends to get drunk and is very forward with all of them. It’s very funny.

Eventually the two realize they never cheated on one another and decide to remarry. It’s terrific. Seriously  a classic of all cinema.

Irene Dunne is awesome in this film. The performance is not quite one where you could vote for it, but honestly, in this category, everything is fair game. Personally, Dunne’s best performance, for me, came in I Remember Mama, but she couldn’t have won that year because Jane Wyman was so good in Johnny Belinda. And being that this category is so wide open, I could honestly look past the fact that it’s a comic performance and vote for her anyway.

Gaynor — A Star is Born is a classic of cinema, and this is (in my opinion), the best version. It’s not really comparable, since this and the Judy Garland version (don’t bother with the Streisand one) are like Pygmalion and My Fair Lady. One is the straight story version, and one is the big musical version. Either way, both are incredible.

The film is about Esther Blodgett, a midwestern girl who moves out west to be a star. And she meets Norman Maine, a fading star who is most known for being an alcoholic mess now instead of the biggest star in the country that he was years prior. And they meet and fall in love. And he’s trying to keep his career afloat as her career actually takes off. And pretty soon, she’s this star about to pop huge, and he’s all but forgotten. And — I don’t want to spoil what happens, but, it’s awesome.

I loved Janet Gaynor’s performance, and it was easily my favorite of the group. But, since she won an Oscar already (for three great performances in Sunrise, Street Angel and Seventh Heaven), I’m not automatically going to throw her a vote because of that. It’s — complicated, this category.

Garbo — Camille is a Greta Garbo melodrama. It’s based on La Dame aux Camélias. Garbo is a poor girl who nonetheless becomes a high society woman. Most people look down on her because they know she wasn’t born rich, but she doesn’t care. She gets money from a baron, but soon falls in love with another dude. And soon both face pressure — since she’s giving up all her money, and he’s giving up — his stature. His father tells him if he goes with her, he’ll give up his status because everyone will shun him like they do her. But of course, she dies of TB and everything works out socially, but then he’s ruined forever, because he’ll never love another woman like he loved her. And of course, the film is framed around an older version of him saying just that.

It’s a standard film — and it works for what they were trying to do. But honestly, after seeing as many films as I have, this is absolutely nothing special to me at all. It’s one of a dozen, and only stands out because it’s Garbo. I would never vote for this film in a million years, because it would be just like if we voted for The Hours as Best Picture — don’t take the bait. Love Garbo, but there are three better choices here.

Rainer — The Good Earth is based on the Pearl S. Buck novel. Wang Lung (Paul Muni) is a Chinese farmer who covets land. Land is the thing, that’s what he wants. And he marries O-Lan (played by Rainer), who at first is a subservient wife who doesn’t say anything. But soon she develops into the backbone of the family. And the film is basically about Wang Lung’s pursuit of land.

I watched this film again very recently, because the only time I’d seen it was in high school, after we’d read the book in freshman English class. And I didn’t remember if it was any good or not. So, when I watched it — it’s actually very toned down from the book. Like, very much so. It’s made very — Hollywood. And it’s weird, because, the film doesn’t even touch on what the book does. But — O-Lan, as a character, is a role that’s worth an Osar (even though she’s played by a white actress). The character is very strong in the book, and is definitely worth a statue. But here — they really tone it down, and Rainer is barely doing anything in the role. It was shocking to me that she won here because — the year before, she won for what was essentially a supporting role. So the fact that they gave it to her again — is just weird.

But, as I said, the role alone is worth an Oscar, but I feel like the film actually lets the part down, and the way the role is portrayed in this film, it’s not worth a vote.

Stanwyck — Stella Dallas is a strong melodrama.

My Thoughts: Okay. Tough category, because it has its complications. First, let me take off Garbo. The performance just wasn’t good compared to any of the rest of them. And second off is Rainer, because the character just wasn’t very strong. I read the book, so I know what that character could be. And watching what that film showed as O-Lan — it’s not worth any more than the nomination. Plus she won the year before this, and that part was really a supporting part. So she’s out.

Now, that leaves Stanwyck, Gaynor, and Dunne. Each has reasons to vote for them and not to vote for them. First, Stanwyck. She gives a fine performance in Stella Dallas. But it’s not one I would consider good enough to win in and of itself. In any category. But, the fact that there’s no clear winner here and the fact that she should have won for Double Indemnity and didn’t makes her much more likely to get my vote. I have the gift of hindsight — why not use it?

Then we have Gaynor. A Star is Born is by far my favorite film on this list and Gaynor’s performance is by far my favorite. It’s like Talia Shire in Rocky. I love the film, plus, she’s Adrian. No matter how much rationality enters into the equation, it’s still going to be my preference because I love it so much. When you’re in a voting scenario, personal preference is always going to be the deciding factor. I keep coming back to the 2009 Best Supporting Actress race when I have these kinds of scenarios. That year, everyone knew Mo’Nique gave the best performance. Even I said that. But, I didn’t vote for her. Why? Because I loved Anna Kendrick’s performance. I loved the performance so much, that no matter what reason said, I couldn’t not vote for her. Plus, I knew Mo’Nique was gonna win in a landslide, so I had no reason not to vote for who I liked the best. So, Janet Gaynor in A Star is Born, is, to me, one of those performances. But — she had an Oscar already (for three films). So, in that case, I actually am willing to let the win go to someone else (not Luise Rainer or Greta Garbo, but, possibly the other two).

So, putting Gaynor up against Stanwyck — I still vote Gaynor. I know Stanwyck never won an Oscar, but honestly, I blame that on 1943 and 1944. She should have won in 1944 regardless of how much Ingrid Bergman should have won in 1943. I just don’t consider this performance enough (despite Stanwyck’s stature) to vote for it over Gaynor’s performance.

So now it’s down to Gaynor and Dunne. Here’s where I reach my stalemate. I consider Gaynor’s performance more Oscar-worthy (just because — while I don’t totally adhere to the Academy’s dislike of comedy, I am a fan of the Oscars, and as such, have certain classical norms instilled in me that I just follow). But, Dunne definitely deserved an Oscar, and the performance was really good, if comic.

The real deciding factor for me is the fact that Leo McCarey won for The Awful Truth even though he should have won for something else. So if that could happen, I don’t see why giving Dunne this Oscar couldn’t happen. Sure, she didn’t give another performance this year that she didn’t win for, but she did give other performances that were worth Oscars. It was like when Jessica Lange won for Blue Sky. It was generally accepted that she didn’t win for that performance, but for a compilation of other performances that added up to an Oscar. That’s what I feel this was for Irene Dunne. After the fact, of course. But even not after the fact — knowing Luise Rainer won the year before this, how could they not vote for someone else?

I’m voting Dunne. The McCarey thing is too much of an ‘off-the-hook.’ To me, she has to be the vote here.

My Vote: Dunne

Should Have Won: Dunne, Gaynor, Stanwyck

Is the result acceptable?: No. Not really. I don’t see how anything about it makes it acceptable. If the film were stronger and kept the character the way it was in the book, then it’s a case of, “performance is too strong, have to vote for it.” But that’s not the case. Plus the fact that Rainer won the year before this for a role she probably shouldn’t have won (lead) for really makes it not okay. But, aside from that — Barbara Stanwyck, Irene Dunne, and Greta Garbo. None won Oscars over their careers. All probably deserved one (for one reason or another). Dunne and Stanwyck gave better performances than Rainer did. Why not them? And, Janet Gaynor gave a performance that was my favorite. So no matter how I look at it, I can’t find this even remotely acceptable.

Performances I suggest you see: A Star is Born. You need to see it. ‘Nuff said.

Same for The Awful Truth. You need to see it. This one’s for your own good. The first was for film purposes, this is just for your entertainment. If you do not enjoy this film, I have no respect for you.

Stella Dallas is a really strong melodrama. I like it a lot. Even if you don’t enjoy melodrama (and I am certainly one of those people), this is a strong one. It works. But, be warned — it’s melodrama. Know what you’re getting into before you watch it. That said — definitely recommended. Really strong film.

The Good Earth — good film, not great. The book is better. Recommended because it looks good and is based on the book. Not a bad film. Just not great. Moderate recommendation.


5) Garbo

4) Rainer

3) Stanwyck

2) Dunne

1) Gaynor

One response

  1. Greg3923

    Irene Dunne’s performance in “The Awful Truth,” ranks up there for me as one of the best comedic performances by a female actress ever. Her transformation into Lucy in the Awful Truth is complete and especially when contrasted against her early melodramatic, sudsy type characters, this is definitely a break out role for her and one that she unfortunately never matched again in her career, at least in comedies. Dunne is simply a revelation here as she reacts to the silliness, with witty one liners and perfect timing, giving a performance completely against type and one that is certainly worthy of an Oscar. This film is one of the few that doesn’t seem to date at all and seems as fresh today as the day it was made. She and Cary Grant walk an actor’s tightrope throughout and manage it beautifully.

    November 11, 2013 at 11:47 am

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