The Oscar Quest: Best Actress – 1946

I love 1946. Because not only does it have a slam dunk Best Picture winner, but it also has the sentimental favorite (kind of like 1939, with Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. Only 1939 has several more sentimental favorites). The Best Years of Our Lives is, given the year it was made, an absolute no-brainer perfect decision for Best Picture. William Wyler wins Best Director for the film as well, which makes perfect sense. Frederic March also wins Best Actor for the film, which was also a great choice.

Now, Harold Russell winning Best Supporting Actor for the film, however, was not a great choice. At least by my standards. I know he was an actual veteran who actually lost his hands during the war, but it doesn’t change the fact that the performance just isn’t very good. At least, as compared to Charles Coburn in the Green Years and Claude Rains in Notorious. Coburn gave my favorite performance in the category, but given that he beat Rains for it in 1943, I don’t see how they don’t immediately give the award to Claude Rains I know there’s the sweep thing, but — it’s Claude Rains. The whole affair just baffles me.

The other awards that didn’t go to The Best Years of Our Lives were Best Supporting Actress, which went to Anne Baxter for The Razor’s Edge, which not only was a great decision in the category, but also a great one historically, since Baxter earned an Oscar for her performance in All About Eve alone, and then this award, which was several years in the making.


And the nominees were…

Olivia de Havilland, To Each His Own

Celia Johnson, Brief Encounter

Jennifer Jones, Duel in the Sun

Rosalind Russell, Sister Kenny

Jane Wyman, The Yearling

Just wanna say, before we begin — where the hell is Myrna Loy for The Best Years of Our Lives? Jennifer Jones over her? Really? In brown face?

de Havilland — To Each His Own is a melodrama in theory. But, the performance of Olivia de Havilland elevates the film from being just another maudlin women’s film. It was smart casting, I feel, since, if this were a Bette Davis movie, it wouldn’t be as good. Bette Davis doing a movie like this is like Kate Hudson making a boring romantic comedy. You’re like, “Jeez, can’t you branch out a bit? Why must you do the same thing every time?” But Olivia de Havilland, she gives such a fresh perspective on the material that it makes the overall film much, much stronger.

de Havilland is the prettiest girl in her small town. Many men propose to her, but she turns them down. But then she meets an army pilot and falls in love with him. And they spend the night together, and then he goes off to war. However, she gets pregnant from that one night and he gets killed in the war. So now, she has to deal with being pregnant and unmarried. So, in order to save face, what she does is secretly give birth to the kid and tries arrange it so she can adopt the boy without anyone noticing. She puts the baby on the doorstep of a family with too many kids, like someone left him there, and is planning on being like, “So we can’t leave the kid here all alone, I’ll take him,” when the family is like, “We can’t do it.” But, what happens is, the woman loses her baby that same day, and falls in love with de Havilland’s. So they take in the kid, forcing de Havilland to only see him from afar.

And de Havilland tries to work her way in to seeing the boy, becoming his nurse, but the mother suspects that de Havilland is the child’s real mother, and that, along with the fact that she knows her husband doesn’t love her, and wanting to keep her son (who does love her), she refuses. And then de Havilland moves away and becomes a prominent businesswoman. The effort she’d have poured into raising her son goes into business. And soon she’s a wealthy, well-to-do woman. Which gives her the leverage to tell the woman with her son that she wants him. So she takes the kid, but the kid, not knowing she’s his mother, is miserable. So de Havilland, not wanting him to be sad, sends him back.

And then we cut to years later, where her son is grown up and now is an army pilot (like his actual father). And he gets leave in London (where de Havilland is), and comes to visit her, remembering her from his youth. And she gets to house him and fuss over him, just like a real mother. And then she finds out her son wants to marry his fiance, but the wait in order to get everything in order would be too long and their leaves would be over. So de Havilland, using her connections, makes it so they can marry, and gives her son the wedding he wants. And the whole time, he has no idea she’s his mother. But, at the end, the boy figures it out, and eventually lets her know he knows, and they share a happy moment. It’s a very touching film. I cried at the end, I don’t mind telling you. It was really emotional. It his all the right buttons for me.

de Havilland is fantastic in the role. She really does a great job with this. She’s one of those actresses who evokes a certain amount of sympathy. She has this niceness to her that makes you want nothing bad to happen to her. And seeing her go through all this — it’s just heartbreaking. And while some might find the performance to be a bit — on-the-nose — I didn’t. I loved it. I get if other people wouldn’t want to vote for her here, but I totally would, and for me, this category comes down to de Havilland and Celia Johnson. IF you’re not planning on voting for either of those two, I question your grasp on this category.

Johnson — Brief Encounter is a brilliant, brilliant film. Probably one of the top 100 or 200 films ever made.

It’s about a lonely housewife who, while waiting in a cafe for a train, meets a doctor. And the two of them fall in love during their brief meetings at the train station. And soon, the woman considers even leaving her husband for this man. But then, the man is sent to Africa to help stop an epidemic, and he leaves. And she has to go back to her existence. It’s a sad, beautiful film. It’s a film everyone must see. Because no matter who you are or what your background or film tastes are, this film will get to you. It’s that powerful.

Celia Johnson is wonderful here. By far, she gave my favorite performance in this category. The only thing I’m hesitating about with giving her a vote is the fact that she didn’t really do all that much in her career. This film aside, it’s like, “Who’s Celia Johnson?” At least, as compared to Olivia de Havilland. So that’s the only thing that might keep her from a vote. Otherwise, this is my favorite performance and favorite film on this list.

Jones — Duel in the Sun is a big, epic western. Directed by, essentially, David O. Selznick (the film went through about seven directors, including King Vidor (who was the credited director), William Dieterlie, Sidney Franklin, William Cameron Menzies and Josef von Sternberg), since this is post-Gone With the Wind Selznick and he got much more controlling over his films, so he fired every director on the film and even directed parts of it himself.

It stars Jennifer Jones as a half-Spanish girl whose father killed his mother. And she’s sent to go live with a distant cousin of theirs, Lillian Gish. And her husband is Lionel Barrymore, who is an old racist, and her two sons are Joseph Cotten and Gregory Peck. Cotten is the gentleman and Peck is the ladies man with the sexual edge. And naturally, her and Peck start a torrid affair. And basically, it ends with Peck shooting Cotten (but not killing him), and Jones shooting Peck, and him shooting her, and them dying in each other’s arms.

The film itself isn’t particularly good, but, it’s big, garish and colorful. It’s one of those films, as Martin Scorsese always says — this was the first film he remembers seeing in the theater as a child — the colors just pop off the screen and draw you into the film. That’s what this film is. You watch it because it’s so big and beautiful, but there’s not really much substance there.

Jones does a good job with the role, she’s nice and feisty, but, she had an Oscar already, plus — you can clearly see they painted her brown for the role. It’s kind of funny-looking. So I can’t in good conscience vote for her here, because, she won in ’43 and beat Ingrid Bergman, who in turn beat Barbara Stanwyck because of it the year after that. So no vote for Jones here.

Russell — Sister Kenny is about a real life Australian nurse who treats kids during the polio outbreak. And, over her time treating kids, begins to learn more about polio and how to treat it. And her methods are at first shunned by the medical community because she is who she is, but her more hands-on approach is actually doing a lot better than the theoretical search for treatment. And she spends her life fighting for her cause, and eventually wins the respect of the medical community.

It’s one of those types of Erin Brockovich films, except here, Rosalind Russell doesn’t use her tits to get anywhere. But you know what I mean — woman beating the world sort of films. It’s a strong film. Really good. Russell is also really good in it. The only thing is, to me, this is a bit too on-the-nose, as nominations go. It’s like later this year, when Meryl Streep will undoubtedly be nominated for playing Margaret Thatcher, and you’re like, “Sure, she’s good in it, but, come on.” So the easiness of it, along with the fact that Russell would give a better performance than this the year after this in Mourning Becomes Electra (for which she really should have won) really takes her out of the running for me. It’s still between de Havilland and Johnson.

Wyman — The Yearling is such a gorgeous, glorious film.

A little boy named Jody (which, humorously enough, Olivia de Havilland’s character in To Each His Own is also named Jody) lives wit his father, Gregory Peck, and mother, Jane Wyman. And he’s a lot closer to his father, because his mother is very cold toward him. She’s still living with the deaths of her other children during the Civil War (which was just prior to the start of the film) and thinks that if she shows Jody her love, he’ll die too.

And Jody, looking for a pet to play with, finds a young fawn. And the fawn takes to him and he and it become good friends. And the film is about him with the deer, growing up while taking care of it. And eventually, though, the deer grows up and gets too big and starts causing mayhem around the farm. And eventually it gets so bad that they have to shoot it because it will only cause more trouble. And he’s so sad about it that he runs away from home. But, when he comes back, his mother, seeing that he’s returned (having been worried sick about him), is overjoyed and showers him with affection, and then things are happy again.

It’s a great film. I really loved this. I’m a sucker for any film with child protagonists.

Jane Wyman is good here as the mother. Though, I felt that Peck was better as the boy’s father. Either way, Wyman would win an Oscar two years after this for a much, much better performance in Johnny Belinda, so that pretty much takes her out of the running for me. I have de Havilland and Johnson, and, while I love the film, Wyman just wasn’t good enough here for me to think about voting for her.

My Thoughts: This is tough for me. I love Brief Encounter so much, but I also love Olivia de Havilland’s performance so much. To me, these are the only two options. Jennifer Jones had an Oscar, Jane Wyman would win one for a better performance and Rosalind Russell would give a better performance the year after this, for which she should have won (but didn’t. But that’s not this category’s fault).

So, having to decide between the two, I do it as such — Celia Johnson hasn’t really done all that much. Olivia de Havilland had such a long and illustrious career. So to me, that’s what differentiates the two. Sure, Johnson was amazing, but de Havilland was just as good. And to me, Johnson didn’t need the award. The film speaks for itself, plus Olivia de Havilland — between this performance, The Snake Pit, The Heiress and Gone With the Wind (not to mention all the other great performances she gave over her career) — she’s earned two Oscars. So I give her this one. (Still ranking her second, though. I fucking love Brief Encounter.

My Vote: de Havilland

Should Have Won: Johnson, de Havilland

Is the result acceptable?: Yup. As much as I love Johnson’s performance, Olivia de Havilland was way overdue at this point. She was also really fucking good in the movie. And, like I said, between all her performances, I feel they add up to two Oscars. And Johnson didn’t really have a career where the closeness between the performances would go in her favor.

Performances I suggest you see: Brief Encounter. You must see this, or you’re dead to me.

The Yearling is such a great film. I might be a bit biased, since I love films with child protagonists, but this is a really strong, really great film. If you have any feeling (or the spirit of a 5-year old) in you, then you’ll enjoy this film. See it. it’s great.

To Each His Own is also a great film. A bit of melodrama, but the performance of Olivia de Havilland and just the strength of the film in general overcomes the generic conventions and makes this a fine film. I highly recommend this one, it’s really great.

Duel in the Sun is big and colorful and sexy. I don’t much care for the story or anything, but it’s big, and it’s colorful, and it’s sexy. And Jennifer Jones oozes sex, and Gregory Peck is a sadistic asshole, and Joseph Cotten is also in the film. What more do you need, really? Plus, this is the film that Martin Scorsese credits as the first film to really get him interested in cinema. So that’s a reason to watch it, right?

Sister Kenny is a pretty solid film. It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s definitely a very solid film, and if you found this film on TCM and sat and watched it, you wouldn’t be disappointed. It’s very watchable. So check it out if you get the chance, I think you’ll enjoy it.


5) Russell

4) Jones

3) Wyman

2) de Havilland

1) Johnson


One response

  1. BlueFox94


    If Ingrid Bergman was nominated for “NOTORIOUS” & Myrna Loy for “THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES”, and replaced – say, Russell & Jones – how would your decision be affected??

    November 5, 2011 at 2:43 pm

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