The Oscar Quest: Best Supporting Actress – 1940

I’m not quite sure what to do with 1940. On one hand, Rebecca, which won Best Picture, is a fine film. A really fine film. The thing is, though, The Grapes of Wrath is a better film. And that didn’t win Best Picture. It did, however, win Best Director for John Ford, so I guess that makes everything okay (though Hitchcock fans might be pissed about that, considering this was probably the closest he ever got to winning).

Best Actor this year was Jimmy Stewart for The Philadelphia Story (talked about here), which is the most blatant makeup Oscar as has ever happened, and is a terrible decision in every way except the “Jimmy Stewart has an Oscar” way. Henry Fonda and Charlie Chaplin were much better decisions there. Best Actress was Ginger Rogers for Kitty Foyle, which some people don’t like because they feel Joan Fontaine should have won for Rebecca. I agree that Joan Fontaine was incredible in Rebecca, but I also love Ginger Rogers, and think she is one of the great actresses for all time, and I think her Kitty Foyle performance is strong enough where it was okay to reward her for all the great work she did over her career. Her winning there is no different from people like Reese Witherspoon or Sandra Bullock winning Oscars (except Ginger is better than they are). So I’m cool with it. (Plus Fontaine would get an Oscar, and things would mostly work themselves out smoothly. So everything worked out fine.) Then Best Supporting Actor was Walter Brennan for The Westerner, his third, which, I’m cool with, because the category sucked, and Brennan’s performance there was actually the best of all the three performances he won for.

And then there’s this category, which is just so goddamn strong. And no matter what anyone’s opinion on who should have won is (including mine) — it’s Ma. You can’t be upset that Ma won.


And the nominees were…

Judith Anderson, Rebecca

Jane Darwell, The Grapes of Wrath

Ruth Hussey, The Philadelphia Story

Barbara O’Neil, All This, and Heaven Too

Marjorie Rambeau, Primrose Path

Anderson — Rebecca is about a young, naive girl, played by Joan Fontaine, who falls in love with rich widower, played by Laurence Olivier. They have a whirlwind romance while on vacation, and she helps him get over the death of his wife. They get married and return to his estate. And there, she finds it impossible to get over the shadow of his ex-wife. And eventually, she starts finding out what happened to the woman, and — well, discoveries are made. See the film. It’s awesome.

Judith Anderson plays Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper of the estate. She’s a mysterious woman who is staunchly loyal to the dead wife. And she intimidates Fontaine with her demeanor (she also has this ability to appear and disappear without being noticed and glide in and out of rooms. It’s wonderfully spooky), and basically slowly tries to get her driven out and almost convinces her to kill herself, as she tells her she’ll never take the dead wife’s place. And eventually, she goes crazy and sets the house on fire and dies in the flames.

Anderson is fucking awesome here. To me, this was the best performance in the category. She was so good. But the thing is, the performance has to go up against something more than a performance, which makes it tough to know who to vote for.

Darwell — The Grapes of Wrath — if you don’t know about this book or this movie, you should probably just give up. It’s a classic in both cases, and should be seen and read by all.

Jane Darwell plays Ma Joad, the matriarch of the family. That’s the role, and that’s really all you need to know.

As Ma, Darwell’s performance isn’t so much about about the performance as much as it’s about what it stands for. She gives that great “we’re the people” speech to end the film, and she’s also the embodiment of “Ma.” So it’s hard to go against “Ma” winning. I totally get it. The performance wasn’t really anything to write home about, if we’re talking critically, but it doesn’t matter. Sometimes a performance transcends. This is one of those times.

Hussey — The Philadelphia Story is a great comedy, about a society woman who is getting remarried. The film opens with Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant going through a nasty divorce. She throws his things outside and he pushes her down (really violently too. He’d go to jail for that nowadays). Then we cut to like a year or two later, and she’s getting remarried. And the film is about the weekend of the wedding. Two reporters, played by Jimmy Stewart and Ruth Hussey, show up to cover it. And by reporters, I mean, tabloid writers. They show up, and the family takes them in because they’re trying to cover up for Hepburn’s father, who was out on the town, cheating on their mother. And they try to give this picture of the family, and cover up all the dirty secrets. And then Grant shows up to ruin the wedding. And during the weekend, he and Hepburn get back together, and Stewart marries Hussey. It’s a fun film. Not better than some other films of this era, but it’s a good film.

Ruth Hussey is actually really great here. I really, really liked her performance. In fact, in a lesser year, I’d vote for her, because it’s one of those performances that’s a personal favorite sort of deal. But here — she can’t beat Anderson or Darwell. At best, she’s a third choice. So I can’t vote for her even if I wanted to. Shame, but, probably for the best.

O’Neil — All This, and Heaven Too is one of the few Bette Davis films that I actually like. I really liked this film. I don’t know what it is, but I liked this film a lot.

Bette Davis plays a governess for Charles Boyer and Barbara O’Neil’s children. And he and O’Neil have an unhappy marriage, because she’s prone to violent mood swings. And Davis is very good with the children, and the children end up liking her better than they do their mother. And Boyer sees this and starts to fall for Davis, but he stays with O’Neil for the sake of the children. And eventually O’Neil sees that he’s in love with Davis and sends her away, and refuses to write her a letter of recommendation. And Boyer, furious at this, kills her. It’s a crime of passion. And he refuses to confess his guilt, because he wants to protect Davis, and he eventually takes poison and confesses to the murder as he dies.

It’s a good film. I really liked it. A lot of the reason I liked it had to do with Barbara O’Neil. I really, really liked her performance. It was one of those performances that made me sit up and go, ‘Whoa, who is that?’ To me, I’d put her second for a vote here, based solely on performance. Taking everything into account, I think she might only be third. To me, it’s still between Anderson and Darwell. But O’Neil was fucking incredible here.

Rambeau — Primrose Path is clearly the weak link here. It’s not a bad film, but it’s the weak film.

It’s a Ginger Rogers film. Ginger plays a girl who grew up outside of town in a family of whores. Basically. Her mother, played by Rambeau, was a prostitute, and her grandmother was also one. And she doesn’t want to be one, so she goes to town and is a waitress. And she meets a man and falls in love with him. And the film is about her hiding her family from the guy, so he doesn’t think she’s one of them and dumps her. And of course, that happens, but then it ends happily — you know how it works. It’s not quite a comedy and not quite a drama, but it’s not a bad film. It’s wholly watchable.

Rambeau plays Ginger’s mother, who is a strong, feisty woman who dominates the home. She doesn’t really have much to do except be feisty and then die from a sudden, fatal illness (as many mothers do in films), and got the requisite nomination that comes with that. She’s not bad, but, she’s clearly the weak link in this category and is a #5. Everyone else was just so much better.

My Thoughts: Yeah. This is tough. I don’t quite know what to do. Almost everyone here is worth voting for. (Not Rambeau, but the rest of them.) So, we have to make some difficult choices.

First off is Hussey. I hate that, because she was so utterly delightful in the film. It’s one of those performances where you wouldn’t ever think to nominate it, and wouldn’t think twice if it weren’t on the list, but now that it is, you really want to vote for it. I hate that. But, I have to take her off.

Also off with Hussey is O’Neil. I loved her performance in All This, and Heaven Too, but, when tough decisions have to be made, you need to find reasons to not vote for some people. And the main reason here — quality of film. Rebecca and Grapes of Wrath are both far superior films. I’d just rather see them have the category more, all things being equal.

So, for me, it’s between Darwell and Anderson. And, quite honestly, to me, Anderson gave the better performance. She just did. She was perfect as the mysterious and slightly (though for my money you can take out the slightly) sinister Mrs. Danvers. I think her performance deserved this award more.

However — yes, there’s a however. Just because I’m a purist, and generally prefer to vote performance over person, what Jane Darwell represent as an actress, especially in this, of all roles — that wins this category hands down. It really does. There was no more representative actress of “Ma” than Jane Darwell. Ever. It’s just like, today, if you think of, “Who will play the crotchety, but secretly nice, grandmother?” Everyone comes up with the same person — Judi Dench. That’s what it is. Jane Darwell is “Ma.” And that makes her an easy winner in this category, despite me not voting for her.

My Vote: Anderson

Should Have Won: Anderson, Darwell

Is the result acceptable?: Oh, hell yeah. It’s Jane Darwell. She’s everyone’s Ma. What better actress to win this award than Ma?

Performances I suggest you see: The Grapes of Wrath — if you haven’t seen it, you’re dead to the world.

Rebecca and The Philadelphia Story — if you haven’t seen them, you don’t really like movies. They’re not 100% essential, but they’re goddamn close. You need to see these movies if you like film. They’re fucking incredible. And classic. Do it. Don’t be a schmuck.

All This, and Heaven Too is actually one of the few Bette Davis films that I really like. I think this is a very strong film. I don’t know what it is about it, but I was very taken by this film and was with it all the way. So, for someone who doesn’t like Bette Davis melodramas, I give this film a full-on recommendation. A pretty strong one, at that. So that that as you will.

And Primrose Path — it’s not that great. But it is a Ginger Rogers film, and I recommend any film Ginger Rogers ever made, no matter the quality. That’s all there is to it.


5) Rambeau

4) O’Neil

3) Hussey

2) Anderson

1) Darwell

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.